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The Big Quit: How Burnout Is Reshaping the Workforce

A number of complex forces are steering people away from the workforce, but arguably the most common one is burnout.

The Big Quit, or Great Resignation, is as surprising as it is real. It’s become clear--as evidenced by countless news stories and social media posts--that people have quit their jobs at historic rates during the pandemic, even while wages are growing quickly. 

A number of complex forces are steering people away from the workforce, but burnout is arguably the most common. “You can't just ignore the fact that people are burning out at insanely high rates,” said Anika Briner, Director of Human Capital at Enspira HR.

Rates that, in the long run, are not sustainable.

Burnout Isn’t Just About Fatigue

To be “burned out” is to be trapped in a state of exhaustion exacerbated by the pandemic and the current work environment. A modern focus on hyper-efficiency, paired with the pandemic’s work-from-home intensity, is the perfect recipe for turning formerly productive workers into zombies.

“During the pandemic, you literally couldn’t go anywhere,” Briner continues. “Employers knew you were constantly near your computer while stuck at home. The lines delineating when work started and stopped began to blur.” And working norms began to shift.

The pandemic also pressured businesses—and that pressure has rolled downstream to employees.

“Businesses were fighting to survive, and therefore everything started to feel overly urgent,” Briner said. Deadlines loomed and Zoom meetings multiplied, while water cooler chats about the daily grind disappeared. Today, employees are often tasked with juggling more concurrent projects than ever before.

Still, according to Craig Ishii, Enspira’s director of marketing, exhausting work conditions comprise only half the recipe for the type of burnout that has hundreds of thousands of employees quitting in droves. “I believe the other half of the problem is lack of purpose,” he says.

A Question of Purpose

Before joining Enspira, Ishii worked at a non-profit for twelve years.

“I was working seven days a week, and was always very busy,” he says. So were his coworkers. But even after logging twelve-hour days with kids at home, “I saw people feeling energized,”he says. “There’s a strong passion and purpose. You’re working directly with a target population, and it feels good to change lives."

In workplaces without this culture of passion and purpose—where people don’t even know why they should care about what they’re doing—the modern worker is much more vulnerable to burnout.

“You don't have that underlying foundation, a reason why you’re working so hard,” Ishii adds. 

Tech and Lifestyle/Wellness Solutions Aren’t Helping

To help ease burnout, some companies have implemented innovations like ultra-HDR video conferencing, or additional perks like lifestyle bonuses and wellness apps. But getting a few extra days off doesn’t fix the kind of burnout that’s fueling the Big Quit.

“It’s just icing on the cake,” Ishii says. “If the cake is made with culture and mission, then those extras can help a ton. If not, then someone comes back from their vacation and they’re immediately burned out again.”

How Managers Can Help

Briner and Ishii have highlighted a handful of important steps employers and managers can take to ease worker burnout. While these changes can’t happen overnight--they require real, thoughtful, and impactful solutions that workers can feel-- they’re worth the effort to retain talent and boost productivity for the long haul.

  • Prioritize culture and mission. Values and purpose go hand-in-hand with clear mission and culture: they should be things your company is truly invested in, and that employees understand from day one. Do you really care about your employees’ mental health? Are managers upholding the company values? Do people act with their own best interests in mind, or are they doing their best to “do the right thing?” Take a hard look at your organization, and be honest with yourself. If you can improve the employee experience from a cultural perspective, they’re more likely to align with your company’s purpose and stay motivated.
  • Let employees co-own their work. People burn out  fast when they don’t understand why they’re bending over backwards every day. Make the end goals clear, and encourage and enable them to buy in.
  • Accept mistakes. Good management understands that giving workers more buy-in can, and likely will, result in the occasional error. Embrace them as teaching moments, rather than reasons to lambaste an employee already wrestling with burnout. Communicate openly and take the time to truly listen.
  • Address loneliness in the workplace. How have Slack, Zoom, and WFH affected your workers’ mental health? How can team members tap into a sense of connectedness and togetherness in an increasingly virtual world? If it’s safe to gather in-person, are you planning and organizing events where your staff can meet and talk face-to-face? These are real questions that leadership need to address ASAP. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, it’s not nearly as daunting a prospect if you understand your organization’s cultural dynamics.

What Should Employees Do?

Burnout isn’t an employee’s failure; it’s actually an employer’s responsibility to address issues that are eroding morale. If the organization isn't taking that initiative, it’s likely time to leave for greener pastures. Your own physical, mental, and emotional health are far more important than your employer’s profit margin.

“If you’re burned out, and it’s due to a misalignment of your company’s values and your own, you need to leave,” Ishii says. “It’s like any relationship: when you try as hard as you can, but you realize your values just aren’t aligning, you have to cut your losses and go find a workplace that works for you.”

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