Earlier this month, the Financial Times published an article on workplace wellbeing and burnout. The article included the results of a reader survey on how employers support employees’ mental health. Two-thirds said that their work had a somewhat to extremely negative effect on their health. Forty-four percent said that they did not think their organization took mental health seriously and half said that they either didn’t know where at work to go or had nowhere to go if they needed support. While the survey respondents were self-selecting, the results show a significant issue with employer support of mental health, including stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression.
The article warns us that the problem runs across sectors, but may be particularly relevant to graduates of law, business, and medical schools; the authors note that “Fields such as law, finance, and consulting seem particularly prone to intense, demanding workplace cultures, but the issue affects people in all sectors. One doctor dies by suicide every day in the US.” Similarly, Blind, an anonymous social app for tech employees, surveyed its users in May 2018 and 57 percent of the 11, 487 respondents said that they were burned out. Only five of the 30 tech companies represented had an employee burnout rate below 50 percent, and 16 of the companies had a burnout rate higher than the average (57 percent). Later surveys, also by Blind, found that 52 percent of tech workers responded that they do not have a “healthy work environment” and that 39 percent of tech workers said they were depressed.
The FT survey also found that reasons behind burnout clustered into four themes: overwork, cultural stigma, pressure from the top, and fear of being penalized. The article suggested that many experts point to an epidemic of overwork resulting from the common expectation that employees be available and responsive to client needs 24/7. “In his book, Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer posits that this crisis is getting worse over time, amid stagnating wage growth and an increasing reliance on the gig economy. ‘We are on a path that is completely unsustainable,’ Pfeffer says. ‘The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] tells you that chronic illness is 86 percent of the $2.7tn US healthcare spend. Many come from stress-related behaviours. If you’re going to solve the healthcare cost crisis, a piece of that solution has to go through the workplace.’”
In an acknowledgment of the intense positions that many post-MBA graduates find themselves in, Robert Goldberg, an affiliate UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty member, recently led an interactive session for UNC alumni to build awareness of and strategies for preventing burnout.
First, Goldberg encouraged alumni to explore various “energy zones” which, described below, he adapted from The Power of Full Engagement (Loehr & Schwartz, 2003).
Performance zone: Passionate, enthusiastic, engaged, optimistic, alive, challenged, and absorbed
Survival zone: Anxious, impatient, angry, irritable, defensive, fearful, and frustrated
Burnout zone: Hopeless, exhausted, sad, discouraged, lost, empty, worried, and depleted
Recovery zone: Calm, peaceful, grateful, relaxed, receptive, relieved, rested, and renewed
Goldberg said that to stay in the performance zone, you must enter the recovery zone before you enter burnout. As such, those in intense professions may need to spend time recovering every working day. This can be done using various energy management techniques, including physical (stepping away from the desk at regular intervals), mental (prioritizing competing demands), emotional (feeling valued and appreciated), and spiritual (connecting work to higher purpose).
Finally, Goldberg addressed the importance of “personal resilience” to maintain strong performance, defining resilience as “the ability to become strong, healthy, and successful after something bad happens.”
Goldberg shared the following five factors, summarized below, for building resilience capability:
Perspective: Take some space to view a situation, accepting the negative aspects and finding opportunities. “Recognize what can be changed and what can’t.”
Emotional intelligence: Become present in your emotions and name what you’re feeling. Don’t feel guilt or shame over the emotions that you experience, but give yourself time and space to process them.
Purpose, values, strengths: Be aware of the purpose that you find in your work, and how it relates to your larger moral compass. Use this awareness to stay centered during chaotic times.
Connections: Form relationships with your friends and colleagues and give and receive support from this network.
Managing physical energy: Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat well, and have hobbies and activities to engage in apart from your work.
Graduate students, particularly within business, law, and medical school, may want to consider incorporating these strategies into their lives now. Building healthy and sustainable stress management habits, within the hectic graduate school environment, will be good preparation for managing career stress, avoiding burnout, and maintaining wellness in the future.