The United States of Burnout
Current work practices are unproductive, unhealthy, and unsustainable. This needs to change.
It’s hard to disconnect from work. Increasing global competition and digital devices enable, or perhaps more accurately, compel, 24/7 connectivity, creating an environment in which we log hours far beyond the point of diminishing returns. The result is a costly epidemic of burnout. The condition is global, but it seems as if America has a particularly exceptional case of it.
A 2016 report produced by the consulting group Deloitte found that one of the most pressing concerns for employers is the “overwhelmed employee.” Deloitte’s research shows that workers check their cellphones nearly 50 times per day, and rarely, if ever, do they take breaks. In fact, the vast majority of Americans work not only through lunch, but through nights and weekends, too. In an aptly titled paper, Americans Work Too Long (And Too Often at Strange Times), economists from the University of Texas at Austin and the Paris School of Economics found that 27 percent of Americans regularly work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and 29 percent regularly work on weekends. Another study, conducted in 2014 by the global forecasting group Oxford Economics, showed that, on average, American workers leave 5.7 vacations days unused at the end of every year. Add all of this up, as the research firm Gallup did in August of 2014, and you’ll find that the typical American workweek is 47 hours, not 40. Gallup also reports that 18 percent of Americans consistently clock over 60 hours of weekly work.
Yet, for the vast majority of us, this isn’t sustainable. A 2016 survey conducted by Morar Consulting found that 40 percent of office workers in the United States and Canada feel burned out. The survey respondents cited untenable workloads, unrelenting pressure, impossible deadlines, and a lack of breaks as contributing factors. These findings aren’t just limited to the corporate workplace, either.
For a 2015 study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers discovered that over half of physicians experience at least one symptom of burnout. Other research suggests that 30 percent of American teachers suffer from burnout and a staggering 60 percent of elite athletes have experienced overtraining syndrome — the sports equivalent to burnout — at some point during their careers.
In the early stages of burnout, you start to feel tired all the time, according to Michael Joyner, MD, a Mayo Clinic physician-researcher who is an expert on human performance. Chronic fatigue leads to an inability to focus, irritability, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. End-stage burnout results in a general state of apathy, and, in the worst cases, clinical depression. In addition to insomnia, anxiety, and depression, burnout may also precipitate obesity, blood disorders, and cardiovascular disease. “It’s a real phenomenon and it’s awful,” Joyner says.
Of course, the reason we work non-stop and keep ourselves constantly connected is because, broadly speaking, we’ve got so much to do: we’ve got deadlines to meet, meetings to attend, emails to answer, and our to-do lists are always growing. But the great irony is that this way of working — and for many, living — is actually counter-productive. We go non-stop in the name of productivity, but unhappy and unhealthy people are almost always unproductive ones. A wide body of research shows that burnout and underperformance go hand-in-hand. Physical (e.g., speed, strength), cognitive (e.g., alertness, focus, creativity) and emotional (e.g., patience, resilience) ability all decline. But, Joyner warns, perhaps nothing about burnout is as detrimental for performance as “the loss of motivation and general apathy that accompanies it.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that while burnout is proliferating, employee engagement is trending in the opposite direction. Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace report, published in 2014, found that only 31 percent of American workers are engaged. Fifty-one percent are not engaged — there but not really there — or in the words of Gallup researchers, “checked out, sleepwalking through their workday, putting time but not energy or passion into their work.” Meanwhile, the remaining 18 percent of employees, labeled actively disengaged, are cause for even greater concern. They aren’t just unhappy at work, but according to Gallup, “they’re busy acting out their unhappiness…more or less out to damage their company.”
The collective costs of all this are great. The American Institute of Stress in New York estimates that job stress costs the United States economy some $300 billion in sick-time, long-term disability, and excessive job turnover (data show that nearly 50 percent of workers experiencing burnout look for other jobs). What’s more is that this estimate doesn’t include the $450 billion to $550 billion that Gallup says disengaged workers cost the United States annually.
“Lots of people look at numbers that big and don’t believe them,” explains economist Caroline Webb, who is a Senior Adviser on Leadership to McKinsey. But, she says, “Just think about the salaries of all your employees and imagine that half aren’t performing at their best — and suddenly, these large [financial cost] numbers become more plausible.”
And this is to say nothing of the non-monetary costs — the sum of the individual human suffering and lost potential that comes with burnout’s physical, emotional, and spiritual repercussions.
Early on in her career, Webb struggled with burnout herself. “I’d just been promoted and was traveling a lot, at the same time as dealing with some serious family health issues. I had a basic assumption that I was invincible, with unlimited stamina, so I didn’t slow down even slightly. It wasn’t until I got sick, in several ways at once, that I realized something was wrong,” she says. “Looking back on that time, I can say that was when I realized the importance of balance and resilience in professional life.”
Ultimately, Webb ended up taking an extended leave from work to recover, and it wasn’t until she had taken six months completely off that she began to feel fully healthy again. After she returned to work, Webb remembers that many colleagues confided in her about their own physical and psychological stresses. “They seemed to feel they could open up to me about what was really going on for them. Sadly, they worried that it would be perceived as weakness by others. And yet, there is loads of evidence that we perform much better when our bodies and minds aren’t burnt out,” Webb explains. “So companies really should be talking about this more openly.”
When it comes to the immense costs of burnout, Joyner agrees with Webb: “Costs? I mean what can you say? You’ve got the costs of apathy and underperformance, you’ve got the costs of health care, you’ve got the costs of retention and turnover, and greatest of all, you’ve got the social costs of unhappy, unmotivated people.”
Reducing burnout will require making fundamental changes to how we work, live, and approach performance. This kind of culture change is hard, but not impossible. And it’s already happening. But there are millions who will pay a hefty price for delay.
Although many of the reasons for our current epidemic of burnout — for instance, the technologies that keep us constantly connected — seem modern, the idea of burnout is nothing new. Some 2000 years ago, the Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca warned the populace about the perils of non-stop work: “Just as you must not force fertile farmland, as interrupted productivity will soon exhaust it,” he wrote, “so, too, will constant effort sap our mental vigor.” His prescient message is one that Americans would be wise to heed.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine, and is a co-author of the forthcoming book Peak Performance: Take Advantage of the New Science of Success. Follow Brad on Twitter @Bstulberg.