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Moral burnout: An emerging source of emotional depletion

Chronic stress in the workplace is not new, but the label ‘burnout’ has validated a very real experience that debilitates millions. Recent research on this aspect of employee wellbeing, however, presents a more nuanced picture.

The latest development from the University of Sheffield, Affinity Health and consultancy Softer Success is the identification of moral burnout which is damage to an employee’s moral compass, and a hallmark of a toxic work environment.

Conflicting values: Moral injury

Moral burnout stems from a closely associated term, moral injury, which has beem studied in the context of the military and healthcare. It occurs when an individual perpetrates, fails to prevent or bears witness to acts that conflict with their moral beliefs. Alternatively, it arises when someone’s trust is betrayed, particularly when it is perceived as avoidable, or they feel powerless to change it. 

Illustrations of moral injury in a military context include injuring or killing an enemy in combat or failing to prevent the suffering of fellow service members. From a medical perspective, the business-oriented and profit-driven environment means doctors must sometimes prioritise factors other than the patient’s health. 

Repeated transgressions: Moral burnout

But this latest research examines moral injury among professionals in a wide-range of sectors such as advertising, technology and banking. It can be directly experienced, witnessed or learned about, for example, leadership styles based on humiliation or manipulation, dispassionate treatment towards those with medical emergencies, failure to comply with legislation or regulation, or unfair redundancy selection.

Participants reported that after encountering a transgression, they felt shocked, confused and numb. But after repeated moral injuries, they became apathetic and cynical until they eventually suffered burnout. The deeper long-term effects on employee wellbeing are both cognitive and emotional including:

  • Fear or anxiety
  • Thinking of worst-case scenarios
  • Work-related intrusive thoughts 
  • Forgetfulness
  • Slow reaction times
  • Procrastination
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling ashamed by the event

The negative impact was exacerbated if their concerns were brushed under the carpet, leaders were unwilling to acknowledge feedback, or they were met with silence.  

It’s not surprising then that moral burnout is regarded as the catalyst for quiet quitting and the great resignation. Unfortunately, the researchers found a spillover effect whereby the trauma affected their new role in another company. Specifically, they initially distrusted the organisational culture and kept their distance from colleagues, which then had adverse consequences for onboarding. For others, they remained in the job and likened the experience to an abusive relationship. 

On the other hand, some individuals decided to resign from their role and compensate for the moral transgressions in their previous employment by volunteering, or setting up a business that aligns with their values. 

Terminological debate: Burnout vs. Injury

In the medical sphere, an important discussion exists around terminology. To call it moral burnout implies the problem resides in the individual and they are therefore responsible for solving it. An employee may say ‘I am burnt out’ as though they have failed to cope, which creates deep shame.

But have they failed? Isn’t it the toxic work environment that has failed them? Perhaps opting for ‘moral injury’ more accurately represents the problem. To say, ‘I have been morally injured’ honours that it is a disrupted organisation-employee relationship.

Interestingly, however, a response to this point illustrates that individual factors can make a big difference to our wellbeing, and protect us from further decline. For example, stress management and mindfulness are instances of successful interventions. Learning how to reframe negative situations can also help restore a sense of control and respectful social encounters can counteract moral injuries.

In sum, it is important to understand how terms like burnout and injury can be internalised by employees who are struggling. It is not enough to expect employees to solve their wellbeing issues alone with self-care, but evidence also suggests that action at the individual level can have an impact.

Employee wellbeing tips for moral burnout

  1. Non-judgemental acceptance of emotions

Moral injury can induce guilt (what you did), and shame (who you are). Be compassionate about why the moral conflict occurred (‘I didn’t speak out because I was trying to keep the peace’ / ‘I agreed because I was exhausted from working so late’ / ‘I stay in this job because I need the salary’). It may also be helpful to remind yourself of the company’s role in your trauma. If moral burnout is the effect of repeated moral injury, no organisation should tolerate a culture that allows this to take place.

  1. Finishing on time is the rule, not the exception. 

If we’re in a job where transgressions are a common occurrence, reduce the likelihood of further exposure by finishing on time. When that doesn’t seem possible, arrange a commitment a few times a week, whether it’s cooking dinner, hitting the gym or meeting a friend, to reduce the risk of further moral injury.

  1. Exert control where possible

Control is at the heart of moral burnout. You feel exhausted precisely because you’ve been placed in situations that you would never choose to be in. This lack of control can cause intense frustration, and while the onus should not fall on the employee’s shoulders, it is empowering to know you can always be the author of your own life even to a small degree. If you value kindness, and you witness your manager humiliating a colleague, can you perform an act of kindness for that colleague or someone else? If you’re forced to overlook a sustainable company for profit-purposes, can you align with your environmental values in another way?  

  1. Reflect upon your experience

Lastly, while your experience is negative, can it inform how you might want your career to develop? How might another job align more closely with your values? Sometimes adversity provides a platform for reflection and lends insights that we wouldn’t have gained otherwise.

Date: 9th November 2022

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