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Workers Aren't 'Burned Out,' They're 'Getting Burned' By The ‘Lack Of’ Policy Protections

Published Monday, September 20, 2021
by Jennifer Nichols & Allison Stevens/Via
Workers Aren't 'Burned Out,' They're 'Getting Burned' By The ‘Lack Of’ Policy Protections

Soaring rates of voluntary resignations, widespread labor shortages, and the ubiquity of "Help Wanted" signs put the "labor" back in the Labor Day holiday this year, as employers struggled to respond to a jobs market that seems, for once, to have given Workers the upper hand.

Story after story blames current labor market conditions on "burnout," an occupational phenomenon the World Health Organization (WHO) describes as a combination of symptoms that includes emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishment. 

But what if the diagnosis - or rather, what we call it - is a symptom of the real problem?

Naming the phenomenon for its toll on Workers, rather than for the working conditions that drive it, skews our understanding of what's wrong and how to fix it.

The word "burnout" calls to mind a candle that's used up its wax or wick, a metaphor that blames individuals for lacking the stamina to handle stressful working conditions.

It is also stigmatizing.

No employer wants to hear a prospective hire left a job because they were "burned out."

Burnout implies weakness, and the typical solutions, reported in articles like "America's Workers Are Exhausted And Burned Out – And Some Employers Are Taking Notice," bear this out: more paid time off, mental health counseling, flexible schedules, and others.

Such benefits are important, but they won't solve the problem.

Half of U.S. workers skip vacation because time off means an even bigger workload when they return.

Mental health counseling won't fix unequal pay or bullying bosses.

And flexible schedules often mask expectations to be on call 24-7.

These solutions focus on helping individuals "cope."

They presuppose a problem with the candle, not the room in which it burns.

Flames also flicker and die from a lack of oxygen.

Too many workplaces are airless rooms that snuff out Workers' energy and enthusiasm.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, these suffocating conditions predate the Coronavirus Pandemic.

The number of Workers who voluntarily quit their jobs nearly doubled to 40 million between 2010 and 2018, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The pandemic did not cause a culture of overwork, the high cost of child care, or the 40-year trend in wage stagnation among lower-earning Workers.

Nor is it responsible for bad bosses and toxic Co-Workers, unchecked by HR Departments, discrimination and implicit biases that lead high performers to get passed over for promotion and other recognition or a collective sense of ennui from stultifying labor.

Workers aren't burning out - they're getting burned - and making a healthy choice to opt out and save themselves.

The "great resignation" of 2021 might more aptly be called a "great awakening."

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