Every month from April to August 2021, at least 2.5% of the American workforce quit their jobs. In August alone, more than 4.2 million people handed in their two weeks’ notice, according to federal statistics. So far, 2021 quit levels are about 10% to 15% higher than they were in record-setting 2019, by Klotz’s calculations.
For a long time, burnout was seen as the worker’s problem—something they needed to fix with self-care and yoga and sleep if they were going to make it in the rat race of life. There are dozens of studies and even more articles focused on curing burnout from the employee perspective. Mindfulness and meditation can help. Finding social support can help. Tailoring your job to align with your interests and values can help. But according to Christina Maslach, a social psychologist who is the U.S.’ preeminent burnout expert and co-creator of the most commonly used tool for assessing worker burnout, none of these strategies will ever be successful if they place all the onus on the worker. “Nobody is really pointing to the problem, which is that chronic job stresses have not been well managed” by employers, she says.
Importantly, burnout is not a medical diagnosis or a mental health condition—instead, the World Health Organization classifies it as an “occupational phenomenon.” But studies show that it can overlap with physical and mental health issues, including depression, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems and headaches. It can even be a predictor of chronic diseases including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, research shows.
Part of the problem as to why these problems have existed for so long is that overworking people has been glorified by both employers and employees, even being seen as a badge of recognition for some. The gaming industry is notably bad for this with the EA Spouse story in 2004 highlighting this. While some say improvements have been made, others are saying not by much.
As a whole though, this type of thinking, belief, and behaviour is outdated, as it dehumanizes people. Thankfully, as it is has put the spotlight on so many long-standing issues, the pandemic is highlighting this one as well and finally seems to be breaking it as well. Yet it’s sad it has taken two decades and a major pandemic for it to be addressed.