Why the Great Resignation won’t deliver us from Burnout
Prince Harry received his latest polarised media coverage as a result of his suggestion that, should people not be finding joy in their work, they might think about leaving their job and doing something else. Leaving aside the debate about whether he is in a position to offer such advice (happy to let that play out in newspaper columns and TV studios). The logic of the so-called Great Resignation is intuitively attractive: the pandemic has given people a chance to reflect on what matters most to them and that they are emboldened to leave jobs that constrain them and negatively impact their wellbeing. As is often the case, the reality of the statistics is more complex than the headline (see this recent piece in the Atlantic that questions the simple narrative).
However, there’s one good reason why people might be cautious about taking up the prince’s advice: our burnout culture. It is so engrained, in fact, that Derek Thompson in the Atlantic piece argues that burnout occurs in industries in which workers are currently less likely to quit. So, is burnout a trap? Recent research suggests that it could be.
McKinsey recently conducted a survey of 5000 employees across five continents. One of the things they asked about was burnout. Of the 5000 respondents, 49% described themselves as at least ‘somewhat burnt out’. The authors of the study make the argument that employees experiencing burnout are less likely to respond to research requests so this 49% could actually be an underestimate.
Burnout is likely one of the causes of misery at work, impacting negatively on both physical and psychological wellbeing. Many of the people who have left jobs citing their mental health will be members of that 49%. However, short of a radical change, people leaving roles in the hope of improving their mental health, may very likely walk into the same scenario.
Last week I facilitated three very different types of session. One was a strategy session with an HR team, another a learning session on the digital context, and the last a leadership conference centred on Purpose.
Each of those sessions involved new agendas, new practices, or new projects. Each time I asked what these leaders need to put their learning and ideas into practice. One theme came out across all three: time. Time to think. Time to reflect. Time to prioritise. I would hazard a guess that, in each of these groups, a significant group of leaders is already overloaded (perhaps 49% of them).
Overload is, it seems, a feature of work in our current world of work. It is a symptom, I believe, of what strategy thinker and author John Hagel refers to as ‘performance pressure’, which he describes in his book The Journey Beyond Fear
“A globalised marketplace and quantum leaps in computing power have speeded up the flow of knowledge and vastly improved productivity, but these same developments have shortened product cycles and heightened the competition for markets and jobs. Our world is filled with exhilarating opportunities but also with a debilitating pressure to perform, which leads to fear”
Despite the sense that we need more time, we continue the quest for more activity, fearful of the consequences of slowing down. Whilst we might keep up in the short-term burnout is never too far away.
We tend to treat the symptoms of this. I first facilitated a training session on resilience and mental health around 2010. Since then, we have seen a massive shift in the recognition of the importance of mental health in the workplace. Resilience might help us to cope with overload, but it won’t take it away. Similarly, the willingness to talk about mental health in work plays a huge role in reducing stigma and recognising the need for individuals to recover. However, neither of those things alone will reduce overload and, until we do that, that 49% might be stubbornly difficult to shift.
To address this overload, we must be willing to let go. As we add metaphorical weight to our loads, we need to be realistic about what we can carry and disciplined about what we need to put down. As individuals, teams, and leaders we need to have the courage to stop. We need to deliberately deprioritise.
What might help us to let go?
Clarity of purpose
In conversations about purpose, it is tempting to focus on what we should do more of to contribute to the wellbeing of ourselves, our communities, and society. However, purpose can also be an important frame for deciding what to stop doing as well as what to start.
In teams and organisations that are interdependent we must be willing to have clear-eyed and honest conversations about priorities. Increasingly our work is focused on helping teams to foster a sense of belonging, in which members know they have value and support, so that conversations like this are both possible and productive.
A culture of learning
In the same way that doing more has consequences, so does letting go. We can’t know the implications of stopping or deprioritising some activities until we do it. Whilst many organisations embrace a culture of experimentation, we find that these are so often about starting new things. They need to be balanced by an experimental approach to stopping.
It should be clear that overload is not an individual problem, but we should be willing to recognise how we get in the way of ourselves, whether through is our willingness to sacrifice our overall wellbeing to deliver projects or seek promotions, or harbouring the sense that busyness is the marker of our professional or personal worth. We need to be aware of how we invest our precious time and attention and to recognise the return on those investments in the same manner that we would our financial ones. We find this kind of reflection also needs space, time, and support.
If organisations can use the impetus of the Great Resignation to get these things right, then perhaps we will have really learned from the pandemic.
Dr. Gavin Weeks