In 2019, the World Health Organization officially classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” and defined it as, “A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” I remember feeling optimistic at the time because the WHO’s definition clarified that burnout is an occupational issue resulting from workplace stress. As such, it seemed to imply that the responsibility to successfully manage burnout should be placed on employers rather than solely on the individuals suffering from it. My optimism was short-lived when I came to realize that employers were generally unsure of what to do to identify and prevent burnout, resulting in a lack of prioritizing burnout awareness, prevention, and recovery, which ultimately led to a rise in rates of burnout exacerbated by the global pandemic that hit us in 2020.
So, what exactly does successful management of burnout look like? Instead of looking inward at leadership, policies, and practices, most employers bet on enhanced wellness benefits. While wellness benefits and resources can be valuable tools, they often place the burden on the individual and end up adding more to a person’s already overwhelming to-do list. Self-care benefits such as gym memberships can be valuable, but they put the emphasis on an individual’s self-care rather than collective care. When people are on the brink of burnout, they don’t just need more self-care options, they need others to show up for them in a compassionate way and provide the support necessary for burnout recovery.
I know from personal experience with severe burnout that I didn’t feel like my workplace, which was the cause of my burnout, was a safe place for me to seek help. I knew that if I told my boss that the workload and competitive workplace environment were burning me out, I would be judged as unable to handle the stressful workplace that the legal profession had normalized. As a result of this lack of empathy from leadership, I quit my job as an act of self-preservation.
Self-care says, “I need to look after myself,” while collective care says, “we need to look after one another.” Self-care includes the activities and practices that we engage in regularly to maintain our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Self-care focuses on the individual while collective care encourages us to see well-being as a shared responsibility of the wider group. Burnout is a collective workplace well-being problem, which will require the collective, meaning everyone, to solve it. Creating healthy and thriving workplaces is a collective care issue, one that begins with an organization’s leadership. When leaders prioritize employee well-being and lead with compassion, the well-being of the collective is elevated. When we evolve our collective mindset to include collective care, we will begin to create safe, healthy, and thriving workplace communities, one where burnout is no longer seen as an unavoidable part of our professional lives.