I’d like to speak to the person who decided that this is the most wonderful time of the year. Not to sound like a straight-up Grinch, but how can you enjoy bingeing all of those so-bad-but-so-good Hallmark Christmas movies while eating your body weight in gingerbread cookie dough when you’re drowning in work? There is so much stress around trying to wrap up projects in time and prepping for the new year (or for those in customer service, dealing with heckling holiday shoppers)—and it turns out, lots of people are feeling it too. According to a report by YouGov America, 52% of Americans said the holiday season is stressful for them. And with more than half of U.S. employees feeling burned out, especially women and younger employees, it’s no surprise that the “most wonderful time of the year” is, well, anything but.
At a previous job, I was in the office by myself on Christmas Eve until 7 p.m. and I felt like I was the only one to blame. “I should have managed my time better.” “Everyone else was able to get their work done on time, so why can’t I?” It’s easy to blame yourself, but it’s most likely a sign of too much on your plate and not enough support—something that you shouldn’t have to fix on your own. More on that later…
When the time comes to finally update your Slack status to “do not disturb,” it seems like if you just jam-pack all of the self-care rituals (face masks, meditation apps, yoga classes), you’ll suddenly feel refreshed and less stressed, overworked, bitter, hopeless—you get the picture. New year, new you… right? But is it really a reset if you just go back to being burned out on January 1?
Is it really a reset if you just go back to being burned out on January 1?
It’s easy to feel like the burden of solving chronic burnout falls on you—when in reality, it’s a workplace phenomenon that needs to be addressed and prevented at a higher level. “It’s not going to be solved with more yoga or a breathing app,” says Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic. There are plenty of reasons why you could be feeling burnout at work: An unsustainable workload, toxic work culture, lack of work-life balance… sound familiar? And the pandemic has only made things worse for working women. Women are doing 15-20 hours more of unpaid labor and 3 hours more of work, according to Moss. No wonder nearly 3 million women have left the workforce in America.
So, what can employers do? Lead with empathy, says Moss. “‘How am I, as a human-centered leader, thinking about the people in this place and what their needs are?’” The most obvious is prioritizing the needs of your team—something that not many organizations actually do. Shocker. There needs to be an investment in long-term burnout prevention, rather than just using band-aid solutions, like ping pong tables, kombucha fridges and laundry services.
“People who are chronically stressed and burned out, all of that feels tone-deaf to them and increases distrust in leadership,” says Moss. There also needs to be a reduction in the amount of video conferencing and emails outside of work hours, and employees should be encouraged to properly disconnect from work on vacation, advises Moss. There should also be increased communication about workload with weekly check-ins to see what’s working and what’s not.
That all sounds great, but what if you’re not in a management position, and frankly, have little to no control over how your company deals with burnout? There are some things you can do—granted, they’re not burnout solutions, but they can help while you weigh your options (like bringing it up to your boss, taking stress leave or quitting your job altogether). “We do have to do our best to digitally detox,” says Moss. “We’re on Zoom all day, which is making us feel hyperstimulated, it’s making us feel self-conscious. We feel like we have to be ‘on.’” Another idea: Go on a fake commute at the beginning and end of the work day, whether that’s going on a walk for some fresh air or reading a few pages of your favorite book.
But remember: No face mask or meditation app can fix a systemic problem. And as easy as it is to beat yourself up over feeling burned out (“What could I have done differently?”), you haven’t failed. Your employer has failed you.