• Tuesday, December 06, 2022

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What is moral burnout? Know the signs and how to overcome it

By: Kimberly Rodrigues

We’ve all been hearing about workplace trends like ‘quiet quitting’ and the Great Resignation, where employees are leaving work as they are no longer able to cope the same way they used to.

According to a recent study, a new type of burnout is emerging this year and it might be the reason for increased instances of quitting.

Moral burnout is a new type of burnout that is more extreme and can cause severe emotional distress.

The study from the University of Sheffield, Affinity Health, and burnout prevention consultancy Softer Success has revealed that moral injury and stress are causing a new intense type of burnout in the workplace, which is more challenging to overcome.

Many of us may be familiar with the symptoms of burnout. The World Health Organization has defined the condition as an occupational phenomenon, characterized by “feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy,” Dr Sarah O’Neil, clinical director at Spectrum.Life told Stylist.

Moral burnout, however, reportedly speaks to more than work volume and job design – it can indicate a fundamental lack of compatibility between an employee and the company the person works for.

Dr Sarah is reported to have said, “It is linked to how an organization operates.” The ‘moral’ component refers to moral injury, which is “a phenomenon whereby an individual suffers distress resulting from feelings of helplessness or guilt. This distress stems from an individual believing they have participated in or failed to stand up for what’s right or morally just.”

Burnout specialist Cara de Lange, founder, and CEO of Softer Success explains, “Moral burnout involves witnessing or being a victim of things at work that don’t align with your values, beliefs or witnessing acts that you perceive as immoral. This could be bullying, sexism, racism, homophobia, or extreme moral issues – anything that goes on in a toxic work environment.

“Additionally, this can be made worse by the constant state of crisis we’re currently living in, like the energy crisis, war, cost of living crisis, rising inflation, and an unstable government.”

She adds that this type of burnout is more extreme and can cause such emotional distress that “it impacts your mental, emotional, and physical health inside and outside of work.”

The warning signs are similar to those experienced with classic burnout however, the study’s authors suggest, employees may also find themselves struggling with a sense of shame or embarrassment (mostly concerning a workplace event), thinking of worst-case scenarios or feelings of anxiety and fear, right through the working day.

“Moral injury significantly impacts an employee’s sense of purpose and belonging within the workplace and in their relationship with themselves,” Dr Sarah states.

She adds, “People experiencing burnout often disengage with colleagues [and] many will look to leave an organization when it becomes too much to bear.”

There are certain signs that you may be experiencing moral burnout.

Professor Karina Nielsen, chair of Work Psychology at Sheffield University, reveals the following signs:

• Feeling ashamed or embarrassed by an event that occurred in your workplace

• Feeling more fatigued

• Constantly procrastinating

• Feeling fearful or anxious during the day

• Unable to switch off from work, unwind or relax

• Having intrusive thoughts about work or worries

• Thinking of worst-case scenarios

• Feeling disinterested and disengaged in work/your day-to-day life

• Emotional, mental and physical exhaustion

People are advised to take time off when experiencing burnout. They are also advised to learn to say no and set healthy boundaries.

However, holidays are just a short-term fix for moral burnout, Cara de Lange, the burnout specialist explains.

The expert explains other ways to prevent or overcome moral burnout:

  • Train yourself to rewire your neural pathways that regulate your emotions, thoughts, and reactions. Doing this will ultimately change your brain’s automatic response to a scenario.
  • Plan for the future in a positive way, express gratitude, show and practice empathy for others, and self-compassion – there are key ways to change your brain’s neural pathways and get rid of your frustration.
  • Set well-being goals for yourself. It is a fantastic way to look after both your mental and physical health and to provide structure and achievement when things don’t seem to go your way. The goals could be anything – eating healthy during the weekdays, going for walk after dinner, or meditating for five minutes daily.
  • Ensure you are not working late regularly, as it could be a cause of your burnout. Try to finish your tasks on time and don’t procrastinate when it comes to getting your work done on time. Make it a rule to complete most of your work in accordance with deadlines.
  • Tune into your inner wisdom to take control of situations, especially in situations of uncertainty. Take back control of whatever you can and don’t let your mind dwell on the negative. Try not to worry about crisis situations and get rid of your fear – decide to adopt a more positive perspective about things.

If you think you are experiencing burnout, it’s important to focus on recovery and rebuilding, Dr Sarah said.

Some practical steps can include “implementing self-care routines, engaging with activities that provide relief and bring joy, removing oneself from toxic situations, and speaking to professionals, such as GPs or mental health professionals.”

She concludes, “The sooner you begin to address the sources of distress, the sooner you begin your recovery.”

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