Could Big Tech have prevented my burnout?

0

‘The MD wants us to make a video explaining the new strategy – can we do that?’ It’s 2016 and I’m standing in a shabby work canteen on the outskirts of Cambridge that’s been temporarily set up as a presentation theatre. The orange plastic chairs are set out in rows, with the tables pushed to the side – and there’s an unmistakable smell of school lunches. The MD in question has just finished his presentation. The outlook? Bleak.

The company is cutting 4000 jobs globally, due to losses largely sustained in the US. The people in Cambridge (quite rightly) want to know why this is their problem. I can relate. ‘Can we do that?’ my colleague asks again. As Communications Director for this company, I’m supposed to say yes. And two years ago, I would have done. But the people-pleasing ways that used to see me jump at the chance to show my public support for the big boss are behind me. This time, I roll my eyes. I’m so jaded that the simple task of doing my job makes me want to weep. And I do, every day.

If burnout is death by a thousand cuts, this one cut deep. That Christmas, following a predictably negative end of year review, I broke down. Unable to carry on, I slipped into a depression so severe that I had to leave work entirely. I moved back in with my parents and spent a month watching Brothers and Sisters. You could say Sally Field saved my life. A selfie I took after my lowest moment – when I was considering ending my life – still chills me to this day.

If you’re in crisis and need to talk to someone now, you can call Samaritans for free at any time on 116 123. If you would rather not speak to someone, but still need mental health support, you can text SHOUT to 85258 for confidential text support.

Slow burn

Defined by the World Health Organisation as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ stemming from chronic workplace stress, inadequately managed, burnout is a state of extreme physical and emotional exhaustion. It sets in after a period of prolonged stress and typically presents as disassociation, cynicism, extreme fatigue and relentless negative self-talk, joined – ironically – by nosediving productivity. Perhaps unsurprisingly in an economic climate in which the price of a pint of milk rises faster than you can drink it, it’s also on the rise.

Research by Future Forum in 2023 revealed a staggering 42% of desk-based workers globally experienced burnout, up from 38% in 2021, with women disproportionately affected. McKinsey’s Women In The Workplace report found that over a third of women rated their mental health as poor, with 37% unable to disconnect from work. This was underlined in a YouGov Poll by Mental Health UK which found nearly one in four working women felt unable to manage stress and pressure at work.

Not that I knew any of this in 2016. Back then, I listened to the voice in my head – the one that told me I was a useless human being. It took extensive therapy, research and conversations with other burnout survivors to recover. I changed my life, too. Almost a decade later, I’ve rejected the hallmarks of a traditional life path, pursuing only what makes me feel fulfilled. I’ve travelled – and embraced every woo-woo trend you can shake an incense stick at. I’ve moved out of London, launched a newsletter on Substack and adopted a rescue dog. Crucially, I’ve sustained myself with contract work – evading the corporate chains that nearly destroyed me at all costs. Until now.

Solution focused

With my monthly energy bill now £350 – and facing an increasing unstable job market – I find myself taking tentative steps back into the corporate world. And like anyone returning to the battleground where they were wounded, I’m terrified. But things have changed since I last spent eight hours a day under strip lights. Where support once amounted to an Employee Assistant line, corporate mental health has had the tech treatment.

From the jazzily-monikered Perkbox to the sci-fi-sounding Welbot, a cornucopia of companies have emerged – and with corporate wellness solutions projected to reach $94.6 billion by 2026, it’s not hard to see why. Some originated in healthcare or HR, others are tech-start ups; all promise to improve employee wellbeing through everything from mood and activity tracking to online education and connecting employees with mental health professionals – both human and otherwise (in the case of one ‘AI coach for stress’).

text, letter

But the unstoppable rise of the wellbeing bot isn’t the only part of this story that leaves me feeling uneasy. The issues that lead to workplace stress aren’t an individual’s to solve, but ingrained in a company’s culture; my burnout had more to do with the additional work I’d taken on after four colleagues were made redundant, less to do with my failure to implement a meditation practice. So could support like this have prevented me from reaching my lowest ebb? Or is workplace wellbeing just the latest area to get the wellness washing treatment? It’s with my 2016-self in mind that I set out to investigate.

Blame game

If I’m feeling cynical, I’m not the only one. A recent Oxford University study found that most wellness interventions – including apps and stress management education – had minimal impact on worker wellbeing or job satisfaction. As for why they fall short, it’s surprisingly straightforward. ‘Most online platforms are individual interventions based on a person saying: “I have a problem”’, explains Sharon Aneja, Founder of Humanity Works, a burnout prevention consultancy. ‘They don’t look at what the cause might be – the systemic issues that might actually be leading to people feeling burnout. Employee wellbeing is an outcome of a healthy workplace culture – but many organisations are trying to treat it as an input.’

Not only does this fail to address the root cause, she adds, it’s also a form of victim-blaming. ‘When the World Health Organisation tells us burnout is chronic workplace stress that’s unmanaged, you’re telling someone that they are the problem.’ To be crystal clear: you aren’t. ‘It isn’t about the individual – it’s about the workplace. Nobody burns out by themselves; the system you’re working within has allowed that to happen.’ The relief I feel at these words takes me by surprise; for nearly a decade, I’ve carried the shame of not being strong enough to keep up with my employer’s demands. Hearing someone tell me that they were also responsible feels deeply validating.

For Dr Hayley Lewis, Organisational Psychologist, Founder of HALO and lecturer at Birkbeck University, the surge in online wellness platform popularity speaks to a well-meaning desire for a quick fix. ‘But when we’re looking at stress in the workplace and burnout, there are no quick fixes,’ she tells me. She compares the directing of employees to wellbeing solutions without addressing the root cause with sticking a plaster on a gangrenous arm. As she puts it: ‘No amount of resilience training is going to help you deal with sh*tty work environments that have been badly designed.’

Re-structure

While both agree that online wellness platforms have their place – gathering data about problem areas and supporting mental health during smooth work periods – neither believe a third-party platform represents the solution to a culture of stress and burnout. That can only be found within the hard, messy work of fostering a genuinely supportive work culture; one that acknowledges that people aren’t robots, that lets go of managers who get results by bullying, that values employees’ health as much as it does the balance sheet. And this work can only happen under enlightened leaders, who grasp that a healthy workforce positively impacts the bottom line.

With the right approach and training, this kind of wholesale change is achievable. ‘In a culture in which people actually support each other and there is psychological safety, burnout cannot thrive,’ explains Aneja, adding that training managers in
emotional intelligence is a vital prerequisite to creating this psychological safety. If you think this require everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, it doesn’t. Simple steps, like appreciating colleagues and encouraging the clear communication of boundaries, can work wonders. The latter, she calls the washing instructions exercise; people communicate how they work best, similar to different fabrics requiring distinct care.

While relying solely on technology to resolve cultural issues won’t work, individuals aren’t powerless. If you’re dealing with chronic stress or believe you’ve reached burnout (signs include feeling tired or drained most of the time, feeling detached or alone and feeling helpless, trapped or defeated) it’s crucial to take action. ‘Burnout will not go away by itself so there’s no point trying to bury your head in the sand,’ warns Aneja, cautioning against believing mindful practices will solve your problems. As she puts it: ‘You can’t yoga your way out of burnout; you can’t meditate your way out of burnout.’

text

The first step is talking to someone you trust – whether that’s a colleague, friend, partner, or therapist – and asking them to help determine what you need. Dr Lewis recommends examining the 12 steps of burnout. Burnout follows a distinct path, progressing from extreme stress to chronic stress (often marked by physical symptoms like insomnia) before culminating in full burnout. The latter is a numb state of disengagement, cynicism and ineffectiveness – a marked difference from the frenetic feel of high stress. Understanding where you are on this path informs the help you need, providing a positive discussion point with your workplace. If you’re referred to a technology platform, demand more. Technology cannot address workplace culture in isolation; it’s not something to be outsourced.

As for me, as I stand on the precipice of another dive into the corporate world, I’m concerned that the cultural challenges that sucked out my soul in 2016 are still thriving. While it’s true that many organisations are taking well-meaning steps, papering over the cultural cracks with technology isn’t the answer. The good news is that data supports this, and forward-thinking companies now have no option but to explore more effective solutions. The fact that both Aneja and Lewis are in demand is heartening to me. I’m going back into a role in change communications – and I’m optimistic I can use what I’ve learned to make a difference. I now have the insight to call out bad culture when I see it. The question is, am I brave enough?

How to beat burnout at every stage

When you’re…starting out in your career

The risk factor: Research shows under 30s are especially prone to burnout due to job insecurity and the global economic climate. You agree to take on too much to prove yourself.

The resolution: Work closely with your manager to agree your priorities. This gives them a better view of what’s going on in their team and helps you develop these skills for yourself.

When you’re…climbing the corporate ladder

The risk factor: You’re progressing in your career and you’re probably managing people, but you still have your own job to do on top of this.

The resolution: Request management training. Most people are promoted to management automatically as they become more experienced in their job, rather than because of their aptitude for supporting people. Ask if your company has any training options available – having great managers is the best way to build company culture.

When you’re…coming back from maternity leave

The risk factor: You overwork to prove yourself after you’ve been away – and you’re operating on minimal sleep.

The resolution: Have an honest conversation with your workplace about how you are doing and what they can do to help you. Put boundaries in place – like when you’ll be logging off for the day – and communicate them. Keep an open dialogue going with your manager and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Annie Scott writes Midlife Mess on Substack

link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *