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Workers battle tidal wave of burnout amid pandemic

It took a pandemic to show us that our workplace stress levels are unsustainable.

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Pinterest employees work at their desks at the Pinterest office in San Francisco, Nov. 13, 2014. The San Francisco-based venture capital darling celebrated its fifth birthday in March 2015.

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Jeff Chiu/AP/File photo

In Japanese, the word “karoshi” translates to “death by overwork.” As reports of workplace burnout have skyrocketed since the pandemic, it’s a phrase that aptly encapsulates a feeling that hundreds of thousands of workers have experienced over the past year. But the issue is neither temporary nor solely catalyzed by the pandemic; instead, we face a long-term health risk with rippling impacts.

This is the argument put forth by Jennifer Moss, a journalist and author of the forthcoming book “The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It.” Moss notes that while burnout has been experienced for centuries, there is something distinct about the current wave of workplace stress plaguing our offices. Technology, a pandemic and a productivity-oriented work culture have combined to create the perfect storm, she says. “Crisis exacerbates an existing problem. Then what happens is, it explodes,” Moss explains. What’s more, she says, it is not something that can be addressed simply by “downstream” efforts like office yoga sessions or even a paid week off. Rather, Moss argues, it requires fundamental, institutional change that prioritizes stress prevention over management.


Three Takeaways:

  • Technology has intensified the workplace pressures we face, allowing us to add “incremental minutes” to our workday, Moss says. During the pandemic, that day ballooned by 48 minutes. And while an extra hour may not seem like a dramatic shift, Moss explains that when employees are already working 50 to 60 hours a week, this additional time can easily be what sets people over the edge. 
  • Moss reminds us of some of burnout’s tell-tale symptoms: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, headaches, alienation and reduced productivity. While people from all industries can experience these symptoms, she notes that some groups may be more vulnerable to burnout. Specifically, Moss notes that people who already face marginzaliaton, unfair compensation and lack of agency in their workplaces are more likely to suffer from burnout. Moreover, she says that Millennials and Gen Z are particularly prone to burnout because of the economy they graduated into, in which underemployment is all too common.
  • Over the next several months, Moss expects there will be a seismic shift in the way we experience burnout. After more than a year of working from home, many companies are setting return dates for the early fall. Moss believes this transition will bring about a whole new level of stress, since social anxiety is on the rise after months of isolation. She says companies “should be smart about how they approach this back to work situation,” as a compounded sense of burnout could make employee attrition a major source of concern.

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