Can Purpose Postpone Burnout?

Embracing purpose could determine how fast we bounce back from the pandemic, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now.

The first weeks of 2021 have been fraught. With a new COVID strain on the loose and the events in DC, there’s been little reprieve from stress and ambiguity.

Given there’s still no end in sight to the pandemic (or it’s repercussions), how do we address the growing sense of exhaustion? Simply put: how do we avoid burning out?

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in the 1970s. He defined burnout as a "state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life.”

Today, the World Health Organization describes burnout as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,”  a state characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

On average, burnout costs organizations $120-190 billion dollars a year. And individuals who suffer from burnout take fourteen months to two years to recover.

Dr. Leah Weiss, who teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and works with leaders suffering from burnout, says that burnout is “impossible for an individual to fix without a systems perspective.” While overwork and insufficient resources certainly play a role, she argues that in order to “create a burnout shield” we need organizational level strategies for safeguarding individual employees.

One of those strategies, says Dr. Weiss, is upholding fairness and transparency. “People need coherence, purpose, and fairness to be healthy,” she writes, pointing to findings that even monkeys value fairness. She gives the example of unfairly distributed promotions, a common cause of burnout particularly for groups who see people who look like them continually held back from advancing within their organization. 

Dr. Weiss also speaks to the role of resilience and self-awareness. She says that shielding people from burnout means helping them “know their triggers, needs, and their sense of purpose.” She believes that organizations must ensure that “within teams there is enough vulnerability for people to share what they see as their purpose, strengths, and values.”

While we might not be able to reverse the damage done by 2020, it’s clear that purpose can be leveraged as a form of early intervention. 

In a recent article on the top hiring trends for the new year, Korn Ferry placed “putting purpose first” high on the list. They say that while it’s younger employees who have typically been the loudest about a need for purpose, since the pandemic senior executives have experienced a renewed need for meaning. Stress, fatigue, and burnout have provoked even the highest levels of leadership to reconsider the deeper purpose of their work and what they want for their future.

“These executives are thinking if they’re going to lean in that hard and heavy, it has to be something that they are passionate about,” says Tierney Remick, vice chair and co leader of Korn Ferry’s Board & CEO Services practice.

At its core, burnout is a metaphor for the draining of energy. It references the moment when a candle is extinguished — when the oxygen gets so low, the flame just cannot continue burning brightly.

While oxygen can look like a lot of things in the workplace (good pay, time off, strong communication, trustworthy leadership, and the like), there’s no denying that purpose stokes the fire of employee engagement. As I told the New York Times last summer, it is a source of intrinsic motivation. Because it comes from within, it tends to be more powerful and its results are more gratifying in the long run.

Given the circumstances we find ourselves in, what better time to think about how and where we can imbue our work with meaning? It may be the difference between spending the next two years innovating for the future vs. recovering from the past.

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