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Have you heard? Everyone is “burned out” these days, but what are employees actually saying and what, if anything, leaders can do to make things better?
Over the past 2 years, I have heard many employees and managers tell me that they are burned out. They begin with, “I’m exhausted!” or “I’m stressed out!” but when I encourage them to explain further, they hit upon all the things we’ve been complaining about for years. “It’s the clients,” they are quick to answer, or “they are driving everybody nuts,” or, “our caseload is insane!” When I return, “But the clients and caseload have always been insane! It has never bothered us that much before,” they shake their heads insistently, “You don’t understand. This is different.”
Is the problem contextual?
I suppose every generation sees its current events as signs that the end of the world is night, and it’s hard not to feel as though today’s headlines are the biggest and scariest yet. Part of the reason is the constant stream of news that’s dinging, ringing, and alerting on our every device. This Shake ‘n Bake style of coating, then cooking us in one kind of a crisis or another has proven impact. Even if it missed its own irony, a BBC article1 on the impact of negative headlines on our collective psyche said it best, “The news is accidentally warping our perception of reality – and not necessarily for the better.”
Who are the “quiet quitters”?
The alliterative, quiet quitters, can be traced back to a social media trend started by Chinese factory workers in 2021.2 The original expression was translated to mean, “lying flat.” It was workers’ way of protesting their tedious employment by doing the bare minimum to get by.
In America, quiet quitting has been blamed on burnout, but an increasing amount of data3 suggests that quiet quitting is an organizational issue, not a personal one; that quiet quitters aren’t burned out employees, they’re employees whose leaders have failed to sustain workplace engagement. If this is the case, employees’ disengagement isn’t a secret wish to be fired, it’s more a case of follow-the-leader.
My work with practice groups leads me to believe that there may be some truth to the latter. Employees didn’t just check out during 2021-2022, managers did too. That’s not to say that hospital leaders need any more blame heaped upon their shoulders. Practice ownership and leadership was already challenging prior to March 2020, then COVID-19 hit, and leaders found themselves inundated with tough, never-before-encountered problems: unprecedented staff shortages, severe health crises, client and employee panic, and new workflow patterns , to name a few. The fact leaders emerged on the other side of 2021 with nothing more than a lack of mojo isn’t a shame, it’s a miracle.
Generations of complaints about generations
Fundamental human needs do not evolve generationally.4 It may be true that today’s young people are more inclined to switch jobs or have less loyalty to an employer, but that’s because job opportunities abound, not necessarily because young people are tenure averse. Graduate programs teach that to silo employees based on age will make management easier and communication clearer, but burnout can’t be forecast by age any more than winter weather can be prognosticated by groundhogs. Pigeon-holing employees by age and then assigning to each of those age groups a set of characteristics isn’t science; it’s astrology with an MBA.
A modern take on burnout and work-life balance
Extracurricular activities and rest are important. Having time for loving relationships is also important, but working somewhere one finds fulfilling, engaging in problem solving, and having the sense that one is part of a worthwhile cause is also essential to human happiness.5 The resolution of the work-life balance debate has at its heart the wrong resolution; that more life equals more fulfillment. That’s not true. The road to happiness is mostly paved inside the borders of vocation, not vacation.
Veterinary work can be labor intensive, but it shouldn’t be laborious. It can be emotionally charged, but it shouldn’t be mentally incapacitating. Packed inside the grime, the toil, the tension, and the often-exasperating push and pull of group dynamics, is a sizable and obtainable core of fulfillment.6 If you’re not getting that from your employment in veterinary medicine, the answer is not more life, it’s a better way of accessing the support, organization, and teamwork necessary to find fulfillment in your work.
- Gorvett Z. How the news changes the way we think and behave. BBC News. May 12, 2020. Accessed October 27, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200512-how-the-news-changes-the-way-we-think-and-behave
- Bandurski D. The ‘lying flat’ movement standing in the way of China’s innovation drive. The Brookings Institution. July 8, 2021. Accessed October 27, 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/the-lying-flat-movement-standing-in-the-way-of-chinas-innovation-drive
- Hard J. Is quiet quitting real? Gallup. September 6, 2022. Accessed October 27, 2022. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/398306/quiet-quitting-real.aspx
- Rudolph CW, Rauvola RS, Costanza DP, Zacher H. Generations and generational differences: debunking myths in organizational science and practice and paving new paths forward. J Bus Psychol 2021;36(6):945-967. doi: 10.1007/s10869-020-09715-2.
- Speier-Werner P. Happiness and fulfillment at work: an illusion or a human right? Civil Society Academy. Accessed October 27, 2022. https://www.civilsocietyacademy.org/post/2019/08/16/happiness-and-fulfilment-at-work
- Brooks AC. The secret to happiness at work. TheAtlantic. September 2, 2021. Accessed October 27, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/09/dream-job-values-happiness/619951