Why are so many people so unhappy at work?

Why are so many people so unhappy at work?

Even before the pandemic ushered in phrases like the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, burnout among the most dedicated employees was an issue. But in the last few years, employees across industries suffered a remarkable decline in morale, and are quitting, retiring, changing jobs or scaling back. Often the normal attempts to address dissatisfaction with bonuses or allow employees extra time off aren’t making a difference. So what’s really behind this crisis and how can both managers and employees address job satisfaction in a more meaningful way? 

To help answer those questions, I spoke to Ludmila Praslova and Phoebe Gavin last week at the 8th annual Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York. Praslova is a professor of organizational psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California with extensive experience in talent systems, inclusion, and wellbeing. (She is also frequent contributor to Fast Company.) Gavin is a career and leadership coach specializing in career strategy, negotiation, and self-advocacy. She’s also the executive director of talent and development at Vox.com.

What is burnout?

Both made the distinction between real burnout and just being tired of doing something. “Chronic depletion is a very good way to think about [burnout],” says Praslova.  “It’s really a matter of human sustainability. You cut more trees than you replenish. You’re going to lose the forest. You take more energy out of the human than you are allowed.”

Gavin points out that it’s a matter of determining where you or your employee falls on the spectrum: Are they disengaged from their work, on the way to burning out, or already burnt out? The solutions to each problem are different—and trying to solve the wrong issue will backfire.

Gavin calls burnout an “occupational safety issue” that should be addressed immediately by leaders in the same way other safety hazards would be. But dissatisfaction, she says, is up to the employee to bring up. “When it’s about disengagement with the work, you need to use your individual agency [as an employee] to advocate for yourself to your supervisors to say, ‘This is the work that I’m excited about doing; this is the work I’m less excited about doing. Is there something that we can do to adjust the demands of my job so that it’s more in line with the things that I’m really excited [about] and where I really want to send my energy?’”

Often companies seek to solve problems of burnout and disengagement with either more time off or flexible hours, which on the surface may seem like good solutions, but are often implemented without deeper thought. As Praslova explained, “Flexible hours go only so far. If your choice is which 70 or 80 hours you’re going to work, that’s not the real deal. The real deal is manageable workloads.”

Disengagement vs. Conflict

Many people may confuse disengagement and “quiet quitting” with burnout, but Praslova and Gavin also pointed out a third issue: moral injury, which flies under the radar of many leaders, but is just a dangerous. “Burnout is fundamentally a matter of energy,” says Praslova. “Moral injury [is the idea] you’re doing something against your moral values and against your conscience. The basic idea is ‘I got into this job to help people, but I end up doing something that goes against my values.’ That can be very damaging. … Sometimes you can have moral injury, but no burnout. Sometimes you can have both.”

Gavin pointed out that there is a difference  between being disconnected from your work—often what people are talking about with “quiet quitting”—and being in conflict with your work (aka moral injury). “If you’re disconnected from your values, you have a few options,” she says. “You can find a different job that is more connected to your purpose, or you can take that purpose into your personal life. It’s a very different situation when the job is forcing you to behave in a way that is in conflict with your values. And that is a situation that can only be resolved by changing the job.”

Listen to the full episode to learn how anxiety and self-doubt play into disengagement and burnout, as well as the three types of employees Gavin says exist in every workplace.

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