In a recent study of 31,000 people across 31 countries, Microsoft found that more than 40 percent of the global workforce is considering leaving their current position. This study––and one glance at social media or a group chat––reveals a burned-out workforce at the end of its rope, which was already frayed before the COVID-19 pandemic set it on fire.
“Burnout has been a rapidly evolving issue for years, but the pandemic just exacerbated an already massive problem,” said Jennifer Moss, award-winning journalist and author of the new book The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. “Essentially, since we hadn’t addressed burnout in a real way before the pandemic hit, we missed an opportunity to prevent the extremely challenging experience of work today.”
Burnout isn’t a millennial buzzword reclassifying the standard malaise of working a 9-to-5 job. It’s a combination of mental and physical symptoms like exhaustion, detachment, and a lack of accomplishment that has real implications for both individual health and corporations. There’s been a lot written about the causes of burnout especially as they relate to the challenges of the past eighteen months––like parents juggling remote work with remote learning––but as I see it, the root of the problem is fairly obvious. And so is its solution.
The problem is overwork. 54 percent of those surveyed by Microsoft reported feeling overworked at their current position. Studies show that we’re working longer hours from home, for wages that can’t keep up with inflation, all the while dealing with the physical and psychological burdens of an ongoing global pandemic. And when I spoke to people about their experience with burnout, every single one cited increasingly unmanageable workloads.
Valerie, a social worker I talked to, loves working with her patients, yet she’s considering leaving her job—her second in fourteen months—because of mental health issues related to burnout.
“The senior staff and directors just kept pushing more work on us,” Valerie told me, which she said was ironic. “For a company who supports mental health and provides employee assistance programs to huge corporations, they seemed to not really give any thoughts to their staff’s mental health.”
Like many who find themselves in an overly challenging work environment, Valerie tried to treat the situation with self-care, but it hasn’t been enough to stave off the depression. “I was again becoming withdrawn, exhausted, hopeless, would cry often, and just overall started feeling really let down and apathetic about people in general,” she said.
Another person I spoke with, JD, left his sales job this summer after 15 years due to unrealistic workloads, and the unwillingness of management to do anything about them. He says that he and numerous other employees left the company and had to seek mental health assistance because of their work. “We’ve reached a point where it’s common to think no one likes their job but they do it to make ends meet,” JD told me. “Sadly, most of this is not due to the job itself but rather those business owners having no empathy to their employees.”
Based on Microsoft’s data, it seems like those able to leave understaffed companies will do so. “Choosing a work environment that suits you, that does not burn you out, or that fits your needs more accurately is not demanding, entitled, or lazy,” stresses Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis and author of an upcoming book on burnout among healthcare professionals. “It’s putting mental health and yourself in the equation and not assuming work needs to be horrible because it is called work.”
I do genuinely believe that there are many people at the top with the intention of creating a positive work environment for their staff, but the intention is only a first step. “I’m sure they think they are doing things to help reduce burnout, but they are not,” Valerie told me of her current company. “They send out ‘helpful emails with tips to avoid burnout’ but we barely have the time to check emails between calls.”
An email is nice, but what Valerie and most people I spoke with really want are reasonable expectations and enough staff to meet them. Dorothy, a very burned-out lawyer I spoke to, put it perfectly: “We don’t want our employers to pay for a gym membership we never have time to use. We want them to hire enough people that we can have lives outside of work.”
Band-aid perks like a spontaneous day off or a wellness reimbursement policy are a luxury when contrasted with America’s millions of minimum-wage, undocumented, and/or non-insured workers, but they’re not going to solve the burnout problem. “Self-care is not the silver bullet solution for burnout,” stressed Moss in our conversation. “Burnout prevention is tackled much further upstream.” For example, Moss suggested companies not give their burned-out employees a week off to deal with their burnout. Instead, give them more effective support for currently unmanageable workloads. “Create overwork protection policies that keep employees from feeling like they need to answer their manager or clients at 11:00 p.m. or 5:00 a.m.”
There’s no work-from-home policy or wellness seminar that’s going to set reasonable expectations for how many hours a day or days a week your employees are expected to work, and there’s really no self-care activation that will magically make your company have the number of employees necessary to make those boundaries realistic. The answer to burnout is allowing people to succeed at work without making work their entire life.
“We are in a paradigm-shifting moment right now,” says Moss. “I predict that the companies disrupting the old way of working and go out on a limb in a big progressive way will remain competitive. The ones that take on a 35-hour workweek, or really limit work creep and cultures of overwork, will still be around in five years.”
For my generation’s sake and those after us, I hope she’s right.
Sophie Vershbow is the Assistant Director of Social Media for a large book publisher. A lifelong New Yorker, her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Vulture, and more.