A “new type of burnout” is emerging this year because of moral injury and moral stress experienced in the workplace, according to research by a university.
A study by the University of Sheffield, workplace research firm Affinity Health and burnout prevention consultancy, Softer Success, which looked at how morally injurious events affect people in the workplace and how moral injury can contribute to burnout, revealed that such stresses are causing a “more intense type of burnout in people across many business sectors, which is far more challenging for people to overcome”.
The findings revealed that although participants’ experiences of moral stress differed in source, severity and length, “in the vast majority of cases, people felt they had no other option but to resign from their jobs because of it”. This highlights that "it is not just the original transgression that causes the injury but also that the lack of validation and support from their workplace leaders or peers exacerbates it".
Potentially morally injurious events are events that challenge a person's moral beliefs. It happens when something happens in the workplace that goes against an individual's values and beliefs. They can be directly experienced, witnessed or learned about such as a colleague’s transgression or betrayal, unfair redundancy selection, failure to act upon a whistleblowing complaint, and leadership humiliation, manipulation or control.
Professor Karina Nielsen, BA, MSc, PhD, chair of work psychology at Sheffield University, said: “In our latest study on moral injury in business, we found that those being forced to perform acts that went against their moral values tried to remedy such acts. All we spoke to had either left employment or were actively seeking new employment. Those who had left employment sought to make up for wrongdoing by either doing voluntary work or had set up their own businesses where they could ensure work was conducted according to their moral values – we call this moral repair.”
Cara de Lange, founder & CEO of Softer Success added: “This new, more intense type of burnout could be behind some of the biggest workplace trends we’re seeing at the moment, whether it’s The Great Resignation or Quiet Quitting, these phenomena are occurring because people can no longer work the way they have been.
“Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t actively choosing to disengage from work; it’s more the case that they're struggling to cope with this ‘always-on’ hustle culture that we as a society have created, coupled with one crisis after the next. For example, a pandemic, a war, global warming, the cost-of-living crisis and more. This way of working combined with negative environmental factors is a recipe for extreme burnout, and it’s simply not sustainable.
“This study is a further sign that we need to change the way we work by addressing moral injury and burnout structurally. The solution to this is to continuously scientifically measure and assess the risk of moral injury and burnout. To future-proof our businesses we need to rewire our brains to deal with ongoing uncertainty. Organisations do all they can to deal with the symptoms of bad culture but we need to think in a different way about organisational culture. We need to create flexibility and fluidity to create a healthy company. Going forward, we need to align the ethics of organisations and their purpose with the world's needs and problems, which can result in increased productivity and happiness.”
Burnout, as described by the World Health Organization, encompasses symptoms such as exhaustion, disengagement, and reduced productivity. However, the researchers say that the "burnout people are experiencing in 2022 also includes symptoms such as moral stress, moral injury, cognitive impairment and emotional impairment".