Three-minute explainer on… moral burnout

When times are hard, morally questionable practices tend to proliferate in business. But such unethical behaviour is likely to take a dire and lasting psychological toll on an organisation

3me Moral Burnout (1)

The lingering fallout from the pandemic, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and the seemingly endless stream of distressing news stories are contributing to a rise in the number of sickness absences and cases of burnout in the UK. 

Employers should not only be worried about the health effects of burnout on the individuals affected. Cutting budgets and increasing people’s workloads can create toxic working environments that are a breeding ground for a whole other type of burnout: a moral one. 

What is moral burnout?

Moral burnout results from a so-called moral injury, which someone can suffer when they engage in, or witness and fail to stop, behaviour that violates their own moral code. 

Traditionally, the term has been used in sectors where life-or-death decisions have to be made, such as healthcare or the military. But it’s increasingly being applied to several other industries. 

Moral burnout might occur when construction workers are told to cut corners using dangerously low-quality materials, for instance, or when bank staff are incentivised to sell vulnerable people financial products they don’t understand, let alone need. It could even occur when managers are pressured into making already burnt-out employees put in even longer hours rather than hiring extra help. 

Other common causes include a misuse of funding or a failure to comply with regulations. Moral burnout is also often the result of witnessing an unfair redundancy selection, an abusive leadership style or a failure to act on a legitimate whistle-blowing complaint. 

Could moral burnout hurt your business?

The simple answer is yes, moral burnout is likely to harm any enterprise. The actions that give rise to it can leave organisations vulnerable to reputational damage at best and criminal proceedings at worst.

But, perhaps more crucially, they can lead to a demotivated and/or reduced workforce. Symptoms of moral burnout include fatigue, anxiety and disengagement. Morally burnt-out employees find it harder to focus on work, switch off from it at the end of the day and get enough sleep. 

It’s a given that companies should work to prevent any behaviour that might lead to moral burnout. That it can have a lasting effect on employees is perhaps a newer consideration, but it’s one that leaders must take seriously, giving managers appropriate training and guarding against it at all levels of the organisation.