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Beyond Self-Care: A Wiser Way to Beat Burnout

Beyond Self-Care: A Wiser Way to Beat Burnout

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A brief history of burnout

Burnout has been having a moment since the 1990s, when we first heard the phrase “work-life balance.” In the early 2000s, we began working “harder, not smarter.” Next we built productivity tools to help us “get more done.” After the Great Recession, we committed to “doing more with less.” Then came cloud-based software that let us “work anywhere, anytime.” When none of this worked to calm us down, we thumbed our noses at the productivity gurus and apps, and took matters into our own hands.

Enter self-care.

A quick Google query for “burnout” returns reams of advice for fixing it yourself. Meditate and set goals. Sleep more and social media less. Pick up therapy and gratitude journaling. Also, no gluten. Search the hashtag #selfcare on Instagram, and you’ll discover over 8.5M instances of it, more than #donaldtrump and #kardashians combined. Self-care has become a national obsession, and a $10B+ industry.

This makes sense, when you consider that certain forms of self-care, practiced deliberately and consistently, really do seem to work. The simple act of meditating for 10 minutes daily is proven to reduce anxiety. Deleting social media might improve your quality of life. Gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness (and better relationships with your in-laws).

I’ve experienced the power of practices like these in my own life. When I burned out from a high-paying dream job at a Silicon Valley unicorn after having a child and processing my less-than-nurturing childhood, self-care brought me back to life. Hundreds of hours of therapy, meditation, and personal trauma retreats later, I feel healthier than ever.

I’m living proof that disciplined self-care can transform a person’s relationship to work. And yet, despite our elbow grease and yoga punch cards, Americans remain alarmingly stressed out. Self-care doesn’t seem to be working for us as a group.

The business world’s silent killer

Forbes has called workplace stress the business world’s silent killer. The World Health Organization has called it the health epidemic of the 21st century. The stats are as startling as the headlines:

Work stress has enormous, sometimes tragic, consequences. It costs U.S. employers up to $500 billion annually. Estimates place the toll of workplace stress as the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S. at 120,000 people per year.

So how do we fix it?

Beyond self-care

One potential place to start is by asking, “Who’s responsible for solving work stress, anyway?” So far, it seems that each of us has taken a look in the mirror and said, “I am.”

Any psychologist worth their salt will tell you that a healthy sense of self-efficacy — believing you can meet any challenge or task ahead of you successfully — is necessary to navigating life’s problems. That is, except when that problem is a nasty global health epidemic — in which case, the roll-up-your-sleeves approach goes from being empowering to delusional.

Expecting already stressed-out workers to solve our burnout crisis is unrealistic and unfair. So why not delegate the project to someone who’s got a fighting shot at fixing it, someone who stands to benefit most from a healthier workforce? People like executives, boards of directors, and CEOs.

Enter the enlightened leader

Leaders are well-positioned to solve complex problems like work stress. They’re trained to be strategic, and skilled at mobilizing big groups toward common goals. They’re financially secure, and make 312x more than their employees. Some wield enough power to change history.

Leaders’ participation in worker wellness really matters. Studies show that “the most important determinant of successful workplace well-being programs is the active, passionate, and persistent involvement of the CEO.” When New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian CEO Andrew Barnes implemented a 4-day workweek at his company, he found his employees were happier, more focused, and less stressed. Self-reported measures that work-life balance went from 54 percent to 78 percent. And job performance improved.

Leaders also stand to benefit from happy workers. There’s a huge link between health and business performance. Research suggests that healthy companies’ returns to shareholders are 3x higher than those of unhealthy ones. A comprehensive World Health Organization study estimated that for every $1 put into treatment for common mental disorders, there’s a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. A healthy workplace is good for business.

The good news is, creating a healthy workforce isn’t rocket science. We actually know what workers need to feel less stressed at work. Things like:

  • Flexibility
  • Autonomy
  • Clear goals
  • Work-life/family balance
  • Purpose
  • Recognition
  • Being treated kindly and fairly
  • A skilled, caring manager
  • Reasonable hours
  • Health insurance
  • Mental health support

We know of practices and programs, like allowing people to work from home, that work to increase each of these factors. And we have validated scales to measure many of the conditions that get in the way of wellness, like work-family conflict.

The job of the enlightened leader is not to invent a whole new way of working. It’s simply to understand, prioritize, and heed the wisdom of experts.

So why aren’t more leaders doing it?

The CEO and the meditation mat

There’s a saying in corporate circles, “The fish stinks from the head down.” Translation: “If something’s broken where you work, it’s probably the executive team’s fault.” Sounds harsh, but I think there’s a compassionate way to read it. If your leaders feel burned out and distracted, struggle to communicate, or lack purpose and autonomy, chances are this will trickle down through the rest of your organization. Suffering begets suffering.

But health also begets health. Studies show that happy leaders are more effective. If leaders want to create a well workforce, they should start by prioritizing their own well-being.

When I first started meditating at work, it felt like a radical act. Sitting silently in a corner, not minding Slack or checking email somehow felt like a big “eff you” to the patriarchy. Plenty of workers now meditate in public, so the next radical act is getting the patriarchy onto the mat.

To get there, we’ll need to replace our image of the corporate leader as a hard-charging tough guy with the archetype of the “wise leader.” Someone who has a balanced view of success, operates from personal values, and cares deeply for others. Someone who puts human well-being on par with business results.

These are the leaders we should promote because they stand the best shot at building products and services that improve life for the most people. We can support them by broadening the scope of our compassion — as well as our advertisements for self-care — to include them.

Attending MAX? Check out Tiffani’s session on how we can all create a more inventive, fulfilled workforce here.

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