Furious boss scolding young frustrated worker; SXSW Panel discussion; Woman feeling burnt out

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‘It’s been a rough couple of years’: Bad workplace culture creates burnout. Experts share how to stop it

'Can we just take a minute and acknowledge that this has been really, really hard?'


Braden Bjella


Posted on Mar 9, 2024   Updated on Mar 9, 2024, 5:08 pm CST

Workplace stress is incredibly common. According to the APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey, which sought responses from over 1,500 American adult workers, 79% of employees “experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey.”

At times, this stress can get so intense that employees experience what many now dub “burnout.” The Mayo Clinic notes that burnout is distinct from depression, saying that symptoms include “being worn out physically or emotionally” and, in some cases, “feeling useless, powerless and empty.”

At this year’s SXSW festival, Elizabeth Leiba of the Center Education Group, Katharine Manning of Blackbird LLC, Tarah Malhotra-Feinberg from Wayfarer Studios, and moderator Faye McCray of Well+Good convened in a panel to discuss how workplaces cause burnout—and, most importantly, how to stop it.

To start, Manning noted that COVID was instrumental in bringing the issue of burnout to the fore.

“The reason we are seeing such high levels of burnout right now is that it’s been a rough couple of years,” she explained. ”We were all welcomed back to work… It’s like, ‘Can we just take a minute and acknowledge that this has been really, really hard?’”

That said, Malhotra-Feinberg responded that the idea of workplace stress, and of burnout specifically, is “not that new.” The idea of meritocracy, he detailed, has been used as a justification for overextension in the workplace and not resting when one may need it.

“Capitalism and the system that we’re in is, ‘your worth is what you produce,’” summarized Leiba. “People are ashamed to want to take a rest.”

As far as how to solve it, opinions were divided. First, Malhotra-Feinberg stressed the importance of working in a role where one can find purpose while being given genuine responsibility. Furthermore, he stated that employers should attempt to foster discussion amongst workers.

To that end, Leiba shared that, in her experience, being honest with employers about what expectations are reasonable and where your boundaries are can help limit a worker’s experience with burnout.

“The conversations have to be had,” Leiba detailed. “If you’re an engaged leader, you should be checking in… You should be looking at workload.”

A big first step from the employee side, Manning reminded viewers, is simply acknowledging that burnout is happening in the first place.

“We can be in it and not even realize that we’re experiencing it,” she said. “We just need to name it. We just need to call it out.”

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*First Published: Mar 9, 2024, 5:30 pm CST