We Need to Think Differently About Work Wellness

There is a lot of awareness that workers are unhappy and that they are quitting. The fields I work with are particularly impacted: healthcare, non-profits, social services, and education.

Organizations in these sectors want to respond to the Great Resignation, but don’t always know how to get at the core of the issue.

This is not due to a lack of caring. The problem of burnout has not been adequately identified in most organizations, and organizations have no framework to address the complexity of the issue.

As a licensed clinical social worker working in a private psychotherapy practice, I’ve spent the last 17 years listening, for thousands of hours, to people talking about their work frustrations. I know a lot about how deep this runs. People have felt undervalued, disrespected, and disillusioned for years. Most employers are surprised by this. There has been a disconnect for a long time.

In the past few years, I’ve been working to help connect these dots between professionals and their employers. The pandemic became the tipping point of simmering resentments that I’ve been witness to my entire career. This is the opportunity to have more helpful conversations and interventions.

We’ve struggled collectively to accept how complex this issue truly is and therefore the sentiment still exists that burnout can be fixed with simple solutions. The interventions are insufficient: Add a yoga class or subsidized gym membership. Pay more for a better health insurance plan. Add a meditation time to the staff meeting.

These are all fine enrichments, but they don’t touch burnout. Burnout is about something much deeper.

In May 2019 The World Health Organization defined burnout as having the following three components:

  1. Overwhelming exhaustion
  2. Feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job
  3. Sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Burnout is not simply a lack of breaks, or even having a heavy workload. Burnout is about very negative and profound feelings about work and the workplace that can have physical and mental health implications.

Addressing burnout in a meaningful way is difficult because it requires skilled and sustained intervention. Something is wrong in the culture or in the society, not in the individual.

Therefore, interventions that address the individual don’t solve the culture issues.

Someone can go to therapy, but what they will probably learn is that their job is making them sick. That doesn’t fix the workplace, and it certainly doesn’t help retain valuable staff.

Work culture needs to be transformed to buffer against burnout. Exhaustion needs to become feeling energized. Feelings of cynicism and detachment need to become situations and moments of optimism and connection. A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment needs to become experiences of effectiveness and fulfillment.

The way I approach work wellness as a program creator, group facilitator, and burnout prevention consultant, is to act directly on these transformations. Organizations can create a sense of community. People can more intentionally connect with purpose in a way that is supported and encouraged. I empower teams to create a clear vision of what is effective, and to create boundaries on drains that are not of service to their mission. Leadership is taught how to support people in their need to be impactful and to use their highest skill set. A plan is created to sustain work wellness in the culture. Clear communication that is respectful is taught and practiced, helping everyone feel heard and seen.

This deep work can only be done by organizations that understand and see value in making transformative culture change and are willing to use their time, energy, and resources.

If you are interested in addressing burnout in your organization, a place to start would be to have an honest look at how you are doing in these 5 areas:

  • People are encouraged to value their personal lives over work
  • Our organization supports prioritizing health and family
  • Money is never a reason to compromise an employee’s health
  • People are empowered to do fulfilling work that helps others
  • People are respected as individuals
  • No one is expected to “push through,” instead, we “stop and re-evaluate”

A willingness to understand what people are truly experiencing in the workplace is a powerful place to start. Consistent investments of time, energy, resources and intention can truly transform your organization and make it a place people can work and be well.

Hannah Curtis, LCSW specializes in working with mission-driven organizations to prevent burnout, retain staff, and increase effectiveness to amplify their positive impact. You can reach out to Hannah at [email protected] or learn more at https://newapproachesme.com/work-wellness/