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Monday Musings: on burnout

Many organizations have been stepping up during the pandemic, offering employees more support and resources to promote overall well-being. I commend organizations for doing something. At the same time, I feel like we're providing topical solutions to a deeply troubling root issue. If we are at the point where any organization feels its best option is to provide the entire company with a week off to address burnout, there is a much bigger problem at hand.

We are treating the symptoms--burnout, stress, and other mental health issues--with solutions that will provide only temporary relief. A week of rest, Zoom-free Fridays, mental health education--all of these solutions, while well-intentioned and potentially helpful at a personal level, are band-aids on a gaping systemic wound: North American work culture. Among the real issues are our continued commitments to antiquated working hours and job structures, prioritizing work over personal lives, equating productivity to hours worked, being on all the time, worshipping salary and job title, and avoiding any real exploration of our humanness in the workplace.

Certainly it is easier to focus on the individual, to provide personal strategies for coping with stress, but this will only take us so far when we exist within a system that challenges our coping strategies daily. I can learn to set my own boundaries, and yet I still exist in a system in which setting my own boundaries might trigger negative consequences. In other words, yes we can gain from working on ourselves as individuals and it may not be enough on its own. Imagine what would be possible if we simultaneously addressed systemic issues with work culture.

It starts with asking 'if the way we are working is contributing to us feeling unwell, how can we shift the way we are working?'. How can we reimagine workplace culture so that it operates in service of wellness? Can we let go of and radically reinvent the Monday to Friday, forty-hour work week? Are we willing to examine job structures that allow us to sustain ourselves financially and spiritually? Are we open to investing fully in employees' holistic development?

You may think this sounds idealistic, or perhaps even unnecessary, but there are tangible gains for organizations when they truly prioritize the whole person and their wellbeing. We make better decisions, and we are more creative, innovative, and purposeful when we are well. We contribute more, and that benefits organizational outcomes (and individuals).

If I still sound idealistic, I'll invite you to consider this question: is how you feel about your work today how you want to feel about work? If the answer is anything but a resounding yes, know that there is absolutely work that you can do as an individual to make your experience better, and also consider that maybe it's time we stop accepting our existing work culture and work towards something better.

If an overhaul of working culture sounds impossible to fathom, let's not forget that we have collectively created and sustained the current workplace culture, the very one that, at least partly, contributes to so many of us feeling unwell. And if we have created and sustained one system, it follows that we can create and sustain a different system, one that prioritizes people and wellness. At the end of the day, organizations do not exist without their people.

It's time.

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