The Cure for Burnout Isn’t Exclusively Self-Care.
We’re a crispy society. We’ve burned hot the past few years, full of uncertainty, polarity, and complexity. And as a result, we see burnout as the explanation for why people aren’t returning to the workplace or are “quiet quitting.”
The common cure we hear about is self-care. I don’t know about you, but I’m a little burned out by the term “self-care.” It’s not new and, in fact, traces back to the 1950s for both medical professionals and civil rights workers.
Self-care is the practice of individuals looking after their health using the knowledge and information available. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s good that companies are encouraging their workers to exercise, meditate, get massages, etc. In fact, a whole self-care industry has escalated in the past few years.
But, for many, the idea of self-care is a Band-Aid on a deep wound. It might make you feel good that you’re proactively doing something, but it’s missing solutions for the underlying problems that created the burnout in the first place. Therefore, it can feel superficial as a solution.
I would propose three other solutions for personal and institutional work burnout that should get as much attention as self-care.
1. If You Don’t Like the Culture, Find a Place Where You Do
As this The Atlantic article suggests, many of us feel frustrated, rage, and hopeless despair when it comes to our workplace, so a monthly neck and shoulder massage in the office isn’t the solution. Work has an oversized influence on our well-being. We’ve gotten good at calculating a company’s “ecological footprint,” but we’re terrible at assessing the “emotional fist-print” (as in feeling hit in the jaw by the corporate fist). Co-dependency may currently define your relationship with your employer (or anybody). However, you don’t have to stay in an abusive relationship. If you’re unhappy where you are and can’t change the culture, look for alternative workplace environments, which will then push you to shift the mindset that your current employer, business, life etc., is the only game in town.
2. Find Agency by Defining Boundaries
Learned helplessness is an early indicator of depression. With the advent of personal technology, the boundary between work and life has become more permeable. So, it’s essential that companies give their employees a better sense of how to set and maintain boundaries. We attempted this intentionally with our MEA team in 2022, as outlined earlier in this blog post While we’re not perfect, and there are always weeks that have urgent deadlines, giving our team a sense of agency regarding their schedule (as well as having it be a regular conversation amongst our team with a year-end self-determined bonus) offers a new feeling of control over actions and their consequences. Consider taking a month-long sabbatical. And, of course, that doesn’t work for everyone, so try a week, a long weekend, or a day in nature. The bottom line: give yourself the personal time to reflect on how you can create boundaries that work for your job and your employer (especially if you’re your own boss). And if you can’t find boundaries that work for your well-being, well, see solution #1.
3. Connect with Others
At MEA, we believe connection is the ultimate healer and restorer. As outlined in this NY Times Op-Ed, feeling isolated directly correlates to burnout. Developing a practice of storytelling with friends or co-workers regularly can have a significant effect on one’s physical and emotional health. We have property and liability insurance for our homes, but who has the “emotional insurance” for the inevitable rainy days of our lives? And the best emotional insurance you can find is always the connections we make with one another. It lasts a whole lot longer than a massage!