Transforming Loss: A Missing Link in Addressing Burnout

Experiencing Employee Burnout

Creating a workplace culture that normalizes the occurrence of loss and clarifies the ways employees are supported through challenges can thus significantly transform the harmful aspects of burnout.

Concern over burnout is at an all-time high, and for good reason. Burnout is a root cause of all recent job-leaving phenomena, from the Great Resignation to quiet quitting to rage applying. The effects of burnout are leaving countless employees feeling exhausted and isolated. 

For management, it’s a nightmare, rendering employees disengaged, bitter, and “over it”. Yet as much as we acknowledge burnout now more than ever, we’ve still barely begun to address it. 

This is because many well-intended solutions and strategies available to people leaders leap over a fundamental aspect of burnout that’s hiding in plain sight: burnout is all about loss. 

When we connect the dots, we see that burnout is both laden with loss and can spread by fear of further loss. 

To address burnout, therefore, requires recognizing and transforming loss, opening up a realm of teachings and tools that can be of great support.

But burnout is about too much

At first glance, burnout might seem to be about the very opposite of loss. After all, burnout is in itself a reaction to having too much on our plate, too much going on, and too much to deal with. 

Herbert Freudenberger, widely credited for coining the term burnout, defined it as being “exhausted by extreme demands on energy, capital, or strength that leads an individual to become ineffective in achieving their intents and purposes.” 

“Extreme demands,” said in other words, is what we understand today as chronic stress

Many burnout-focused tools and interventions aim their whole focus here, proposing that workers and management need to simply be more aware of stress levels and what’s causing it.

This is certainly a key step, but it may not lead to lasting change. Dr. Christina Maslach’s decades of research on burnout helps us see why. 

An American psychologist and core researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Maslach developed a theoretical summary for burning, defining it through three primary aspects:

1) feeling depleted of energy and/or exhaustion

2)  increased mental distance from one’s own engagements that spurs feelings of negativism and/or cynicism

3) reduced personal efficacy that leaves us feeling ineffective.

Where loss comes in​

Exhausted, cynical, and ineffective – each of these speaks to an attribute that’s gone missing – loss of energy, possibility, effectiveness, and/or self-esteem. 

It’s important we begin with presencing how difficult it is to experience the loss of any of these. 

“We normalize exhaustion,” Brooke Daniels shares through her work as a burnout coach. “Years of conditioning have mistakenly convinced people that long hours and overwork are the keys to success when in reality, it’s having the exact opposite effect. Many ambitious professionals have adapted to function at this level of exhaustion at the expense of their personal lives and relationships. It can be a traumatic experience when they finally hit the burnout wall.” 

What makes this a “traumatic experience” and causes us much suffering is that these attributes – energy, effectiveness, self-esteem, etc. – often define our sense of self and self-worth. 

This is particularly true in workplace settings, where we may feel we need to be an energetic and effective person in order to stay relevant and employed.

If our sense of self becomes defined by our capacity, energy, and effectiveness to do work, then who are we when those fail? What becomes of our sense of worth? 

Recent data from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index affirms this problem, revealing that while nearly 60% of workers say they experience burnout, the effects are impacting managers and executive-level leaders at even higher rates than the average worker

As Omid Safi writes, when we seek the highest degrees of success in a culture that celebrates and rewards activity above all, “we (can) collapse our sense of who we are into what we do.”

The onset of burnout — and the fear of losing that burnout enacts — is a natural response that kicks in at our very edge of overwhelm, a “hitting the breaks” that kicks in as a distress signal. 

Burnout is thus an appropriate response to the types of distress likely to run high in environments where people feel only as valuable as their accomplishments, sales, or in meeting KPIs, and in systems where safety nets are few and fragile. 

Further, the more we fear there’s something to lose when we are exhausted or feel ineffective, the more burnout will bring us to a halt. 

When this responsive mindset enters the workplace, it can easily permeate the culture at large. “When an employee is feeling burned out, it has a domino effect,” says Tanner Brunsdale, Senior Manager of Benefits and Mobility at Lyft. 

“If you see your colleague and it seems like they no longer care, it’s easy to think why should I care?” This reflects what often appears on the surface. But underneath ‘I don’t care’ sits the pervasive feeling that if people are overwhelmed and disengaged in this workplace, it means loss is in the air. 

Borrowing from the language of grief, some practitioners have begun to describe this as “anticipatory burnout” – the mere fear that burnout is looming can send more of us into distress and loss-filled states even faster.

Man experiencing burnout at work

Grief works because burnout is never one-dimensional​

To tend to the losses that we’re encountering through burnout and fear experiencing more of, we need tools for processing loss, alongside a solid sense of what holds us up

Rather than pathologizing or diagnosing burnout as an abnormality, of the best things we can do to support ourselves and others through burnout, is to create accessible support and practices around loss for everyone at work

This is where grief practices come in. 

Grieving is the wide range of emotional, mental, and physical experiences that result from coping with a major loss. We often associate grief with death, but grieving is a psychological and somatic process that helps us cope with loss of all kinds, repairing our sense of connection with ourselves and others.

Grief work focuses on all facets of loss, no matter what that loss itself may be, and upholds that there is no one way to grieve. This makes it highly applicable to burnout, for, as Maureen Calabrese, Chief People Officer at Modern Health, confirms, “Burnout is never one dimensional.” 

She reveals the multilayered nature of burnout and the responsibility workplaces have in asserting, “Certainly there’s impact happening within the confines of work, but it’s also what’s happening to people in their life outside of work. What are they experiencing? What systems of support do they have? How do they react and respond to stress? 

That’s why, as employers, meet(ing) people where they are on that journey in a way that’s most comfortable for them is so critical.”

Putting it into practice

In my Grief at Work program, participants explore a wide range of things we need in order to healthily grieve and process loss — from time & space and acknowledgment to mental & emotional care resources, laughter & joy, physical exercise, rituals, rest, mindfulness, and more. 

By framing it this way, people are often able to recall what has helped them move through loss in the past and what they wished they’d had more access to in those experiences. 

We then pair this brainstorm with an honest exploration of losses in the workplace, past and present, and take an inventory of what benefits are currently available, directly or indirectly. This practice helps employees have a better sense of their own needs. 

It can also clarify for managers and leaders what resources need to be prioritized, made accessible, and normalized. 

This kind of approach echoes what  Kim Rohrer, Principal People Partner at Oyster, sees as the biggest recent change in workplaces. “The main shift that we’ve seen in these last few years,” she says, “is really about acknowledging the whole person who’s showing up to work.” 

Knowing that fears of losing resources, finances, and relationships can get activated in the face of burnout, — and how much those affect people’s sense of their whole self, — decision-makers have an opportunity to clarify how these elements are safeguarded and sustained. 

Communicating this helps to create more psychological safety, and in times of burnout, is all the more strategic to share upfront.

Creating a workplace culture that normalizes the occurrence of loss and clarifies the ways employees are supported through challenges can thus significantly transform the harmful aspects of burnout. 

Interventions like this “change the benefits conversation from ‘how much will it cost us this year?’ to ‘how is this creating the talent that we need to be the competitive company we want to be a year from now and beyond?’” remarks Maggie Ruvoldt

In her work in women’s health, her newsletter Eve Was Framed, and as a former CHRO, Maggie highlights how equitable workplaces as those where staff can be “focused on the work at work because they know they’re supported and getting access to everything they need.” 

Honoring loss mitigates burnout

Having a solid sense of what people need in order to grieve, alongside more competence in communicating around loss, is a critical way managers, leaders, and colleagues can support their workforce through burnout. 

Loss is a topic we often avoid, out of shame, fear of judgment, and concern that acknowledging it will interfere with our productivity. 

Acknowledging our colleagues for all aspects of their lives, even the ones that may not seem positive is important for creating a sense of safety and wholeness in the workplace. When we become aware of loss and tap into tried and true grief practices, it can both help us de-individualize what contributes to burnout and gives us a personal sense of how moving through it is possible. 

Healthy grieving doesn’t make loss disappear – especially losses that continue to be perpetuated – but it does increase our awareness of how to move through losses and regain a sense of connectedness.

By processing loss, it becomes clearer where we can let go, where we can work with more resilience, and where we may need to take action or change course in order to care for ourselves and others. 

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