Understanding the causes of burnout and quitting silently


Tabitha A. Scott, CEM, CDSM is a partner at Epic game with more than 20 years of global leadership in investment, innovation and transformation.

Energy, or “the ability to do work,” is an essential resource for healthy workplaces. It is no coincidence that many workplace attributes are assigned energetic nomenclature. Burnout, connectivity, production, transformation, power, even atmosphere – all these terms refer to energetic forms of movement. Even the universal symbol for a great idea, the light bulb, circles back to energy.

Renowned Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr noted that all matter and living things simply consist of swirling energy at the subatomic level. Einstein described life as a series of vibrations. Erwin Schrödinger once said that everything consists of waves. And any manager would tell you that they want to see energy and enthusiasm from their team members.

Energy is seen as a driving force and an important core characteristic for team members, usually expressed in the form of enthusiasm and commitment. Sometimes this means people feel they are expected to show or feign energy even when they don’t really have it, despite difficult life circumstances or in favor of team momentum.

This definition of energy threatens to displace real human experiences and exacerbate the sense of burnout that many employees face. Many are struggling to recharge, especially after two years of a global pandemic and economic challenges that just won’t abate. A positive vibe can also be sucked out by a work culture that requires complete surrender to its rigid, overworked conditions.

Some absorb all these reflections and feel powerless against the onslaught of change, uncertainty and disruption. Wages can be increased, but only by a certain percentage. Unlimited free time, at least in the literal sense of the word, is not an option. Team members must produce or perform or else it can hamper operations.

But we know what motivates people. That of the psychologist Abraham Maslow Hierarchy of needs is a good starting point, based on extensive and proven research. Humans, Maslow argued, have a range of needs beyond just physiological requirements such as food, warmth, and shelter. They also need to feel at home, intimacy and security in their relationships. They also have a need to feel a purpose and to feel a connection to something bigger than themselves.

In difficult times, people tend to fall back on the satisfaction of their most basic needs, leaving them with less capacity for creative thinking and challenging cognitive performance. This was widely acknowledged and acknowledged during the Covid-19 pandemic. But employees who are still exhausted, or those who seem clearly disengaged, may experience something similar. In fact, experts tell us so pandemic-related PTSD can be more serious than a single traumatic event because there is no clear ending.

A goal can drive energy, but it must be recognizable, clear and aligned with authentic values. Otherwise, employees will see through the ruse and disconnect. A sense of purpose also aids morale and productivity by allowing individual team members to explore their personal work interests or have extra time to enjoy the areas of their role where they truly excel.

I believe that what we are seeing – in terms of imbalance and burnout caused by the pace of change and other factors in the workplace – is directly related to people floating in the deficit layers in Maslow’s hierarchy. In a sense, think of a goal as a “deficiency need.” If one’s basic deficiency needs are not met, it is highly unlikely that their growth needs will even be a factor in their day-to-day existence.

As a result, organizations must view deficiency needs as ‘most important’. Until employees achieve these, concepts that fall into the category of growth needs, such as innovation, design, and purpose, will remain abstract and elusive. As a leader, ask yourself the following questions.

1. How do you usually react to the perception of low or limited energy?

Is your instinct to get frustrated? It is understandable, in such a fast-paced and competitive world, to feel little patience for a team member who seems disinterested or disengaged. But remember, you put them on for a reason. There’s probably a reason why things have changed, as well as a place where you can step in and identify where they need extra support.

2. What does your team say it needs?

Don’t forget to be so afraid of the answers that you don’t even ask the question. Some managers may worry that if they clear the floor they will be overwhelmed with requests for PTO or raises – which they want to fulfill but can’t due to the pressures the company is facing. Sometimes this is the answer to organizational problems, but you may be surprised to discover that people are actually looking for someone who listens and cares.

3. What obstacles stand in the way of meeting those needs?

If it’s something as simple as a team member wanting to be reassigned to a new project, or need more time to focus on a skill area they’re passionate about, it’s almost always possible to make that work. If it’s something complicated, then a genuine effort to listen and show empathy will at least show that you resonate with their needs.

It is not common to think of humans as energetic beings, especially in professional settings. It may seem too New Age or futuristic to do that. But don’t forget that the simplicity of this perspective is fully supported by scientific principles that provide a basis for understanding the imbalance people feel today.

Energy is at the heart of all our modern work ailments. When energy is zapped, it takes a charge to reboot. It is a leader’s job to recognize that without a strong base vibe that resonates with employees, the team cannot be expected to deliver on a creative and strategic level. They’re just trying to get a temporary spark out of a dead battery, and that just won’t work in the long run. The battery needs a jump, as do our staff.

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