Evidence suggests we don’t work only for the money. Billionaire moguls boast intense work hours, individuals with high earning potential spend less time on leisure, and children of rich parents are twice as likely to have summer jobs. On top of this, people often say the stakes of their job is more than just their income; people are searching for careers that impassion them and contribute to a greater meaning than just a wage. But is it healthy to tie our sense of identity to our work and work achievements?
COVID-19 rapidly disrupted our regular nine-to-five and for many, called into question the relative significance of our work in the world and whether the long hours and constant connectedness had real meaning.
The result of this emotional questioning layered with disrupted schedules and an overlay of excess community stress and anxiety? Burnout. Associated with exhaustion, feelings of negativity, and reduced professional drive, burnout has become exacerbated by the added pressures brought on by the pandemic. Burnout is a psychological phenomenon that has defined our working age, resulting from the chasm dividing what we hope to get out of work versus what we actually get.
The mythology that drives us to the point of burnout is the promise that if we work hard, we will be fulfilled and self-actualized. Before 2020, this has for the most part rung true – when engagement in work was high, so was the wellbeing of the worker. This also interacted in an additive manner, where if a worker was both engaged and thriving at work, the possibility of burnout decreased and overall productivity increased.
However, a Gallup poll revealed a paradox in the COVID-19 workspace: as engagement in work increased, the wellbeing of the worker decreased. Working during COVID-19 is associated with an intensified level of engagement but with correlated levels of negative emotions such as stress and worry. Consequently, we are seeing high levels of work engagement, which would normally be associated with fulfilment and wellbeing, but is instead causing stress, anxiety, and negativism.
So how do we navigate this Engagement-Wellbeing Paradox in 2022 and beyond? The greatest concern is that, once workplaces return to some form of normalcy, many employees will be approaching burnout. While part of the onus is on the workplace to ensure they are appropriately caring for their employees (see: The Great Resignation and re-imagining the work environment), possibly there are steps to be taken at an individual level to reduce chance of burnout and improve wellbeing.
First, it is important to get an understanding of what purpose in the workplace can look like, and how it relates to an individual worker’s strengths. What motivates you most about work - do you like solving problems, or seeing a difference you make on another person? How are these motivators entrenched in the company’s mission and vision? Workers can actively look for ways to pursue these actions and values in everyday work, even if implemented at a small scale.
Additionally, a way to improve wellbeing from work is to change your perspective in how you find purpose. Attributing a sense of purpose from work is often the result of three main elements: feeling connected to something bigger than yourself, knowing your work matters, and understanding how your work affects others, both within the organization and the greater community. Workers can connect what they do to the bigger picture, linking their work to values which matter most to them.
Another way to improve worker wellbeing is to be empathetic and positive to other colleagues. Sharing positive narratives with other colleagues, such as commending someone’s presentation or work progress, helps shift a collective attitude to positivity and growth. This is the belief of “social contagion” – where behaviors and attitudes can be spread throughout social networks and influence the cultural mindset. Not only does praising others improve their own sense of self-efficacy, but it feeds into this contagion effect of high productivity, high sense of fulfilment, and community value.
Finally, what the pandemic has taught us is that our total sense of fulfilment does not need to stem from work alone. Where our work ethos was previously obsessed with striving for notable achievements, we have reached a point where we must ask, “what are we trying to prove?”. When focusing intensely on professional targets, we can forget that there are other aspects of life which provide fulfilment and self-actualization. Having a sense of purpose outside of your nine-to-five can actually help enrich your work with more meaning. By evaluating what you prioritize in a holistic sense – whether it is family, friends, community, or work – you are more likely to be left satisfied as a whole, as you are finding fulfilment through a multitude of facets.
2020-21 has demonstrated that we can no longer rely on intense work engagement to gain a sense of purpose. Instead, we must seek out purpose beyond our regular working hours, using each sector of life to enrich our sense of fulfilment. The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity where we can deconstruct how we shape our purpose – whether it is through connecting to the bigger picture, having a positive impact on others, or finding meaning outside of work. We can hope that this shift in work ethos in 2022 and beyond will help restore the path to self-actualization.
If your team is struggling with burnout, HBD can help! We provide specialty team, or individual level programs, grounded in neuroscience, that he
lp employees understand the interplay between physiology and psychology, and provide unique strategies to build health and resilience so that your team can remain healthy, motivated, and productive.