Will ‘moral burnout’ become the next workplace epidemic?
The concept of moral burnout may be new to most people, but it is thought to be behind some of the most significant workplace trends of recent times, such as the so-called great resignation and quiet quitting.
It manifests itself after someone has sustained a moral injury, generally over a prolonged period. A moral injury is a cognitive and emotional response that occurs when they undertake, witness and/or fail to prevent behaviour that violates their personal values.
“The situation starts as moral stress,” explains Cara de Lange, founder and CEO of employee wellbeing consultancy Softer Success. “If it goes on for months, it becomes a moral injury, which can then lead to burnout.”
She believes that such “trauma-infused burnout” – cases of which have proliferated in a “massive” way in recent years and are unlikely to have peaked – is caused by a blend of “emotional exhaustion, cynicism and moral injury”.
Moral burnout in the workplace
While the extent to which this condition has always been present among the working population is unclear, de Lange is convinced that the problem has worsened since the pandemic started. She estimates that between 10% and 20% of all employees are affected by moral burnout.
Although it’s a relatively new concept in a business setting, the term has been in use for some time in other contexts. Traditionally, moral burnout has been more associated with the kind of trauma commonly experienced by people in the military, which is where most psychological research into the subject has focused. But in May the University of Sheffield, Softer Success and the Affinity Health at Work consultancy published a study exploring the impact of moral burnout in a business setting.
The research found that employees experienced moral injury and burnout in organisations where they or their colleagues had been subjected to prolonged mistreatment. This included bullying, abusive leadership practices and the repeated use of racist, misogynistic and/or homophobic language.
Dr Kara Ng, presidential fellow in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, explains the mechanism: “We all have internalised moral norms that are socialised into us when we’re younger. In complex social situations, it may not be possible to correct a moral violation immediately. It’s stressful to be in this kind of environment, which is detrimental to people’s mental health.”
Because moral norms are inherently “very subjective”, an act that’s morally injurious to one person may not even register with someone else. This makes the situation particularly hard for business leaders to recognise and tackle, according to Ng. But they must do so if the common outcomes of moral burnout, such as reduced employee engagement and increased staff turnover, are not to harm the bottom line, she argues.
Traditional burnout versus moral burnout
Moral burnout differs from the more traditional occupational burnout as defined by the World Health Organization. The latter is a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Sufferers tend to feel exhausted and mentally distance themselves from, or become cynical about, their work.
In cases of moral burnout, the emotional ill-effects are much deeper and more prolonged. Sufferers tend to ruminate constantly about their situation and commonly experience feelings of helplessness, anger, embarrassment, guilt, betrayal and mistrust in their employer.
Dr Eileen Ward is a chartered psychologist and partner at the Leadenhall Wellbeing consultancy. In her experience, people suffering moral burnout tend to be more emotional than those experiencing conventional burnout.
“They may become more withdrawn or have a more volatile temper than normal, or they may start demonstrating signs of perfectionism or absenteeism,” she says. “They may have problems with their physical health as a result of repressing their emotions.”
Another unhealthy dynamic occurs when employees “morally disengage” as they become ever more uncomfortable with their environment, Ng says. They do this by “cognitively reconstructing situations and how they interpret them so that things don’t seem as bad. This means that people can continue to live with themselves.”
But this kind of coping strategy often serves to exacerbate a toxic situation. Common outcomes of such cognitive dissonance include victim-blaming, making excuses for abusive behaviour or using euphemistic terms such as ‘banter’ to describe it. This approach not only normalises damaging ways of interacting; it also makes moral burnout contagious.
“It differs greatly from traditional burnout in that it can really affect large numbers of people,” Ng says.
What can leaders do?
So what can be done to prevent moral burnout from taking hold and spreading in your organisation? The first thing that concerned business leaders should do, Ward says, is simply listen. This should enable them to distinguish which kind of burnout individual employees are experiencing. It should also help them to alleviate some of their internal conflicts.
“Don’t underestimate the power of listening,” she urges. “Once people feel heard, most can navigate to a better place in their minds themselves. You don’t have to be a qualified psychologist to help them with that.”
For this approach to be effective, leaders must make people feel psychologically safe enough to share their feelings without fear of repercussions. To achieve this level of trust, they need to be consistently open, honest, authentic and supportive to the employees concerned.
This is far easier said than done if the wider company culture is already toxic. But, as Ng points out, most firms “don’t decide they want to be unethical at the expense of employee wellbeing. They often just overload people with work to hit quarterly targets or prioritise short-term performance over employee experience and engagement, which means that these factors end up taking a back seat.”
Going back to basics
Ng argues that it’s crucial for the leadership team to “go back to basics to introduce foundational change”. This means creating formal structures, such as codes of conduct and processes enabling staff to report behaviour that concerns them, if these don’t already exist.
But it shouldn’t be a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Leaders simply have to be role models of positive behaviour. If a CEO were to interact with employees in ways that don’t comply with the organisation’s code of conduct, for instance, it would undermine the whole point of writing one and, conceivably, make matters worse.
“It will make little difference if the formal structures are put in place but the culture doesn’t support them,” warns Ng, but she adds: “It can still be quite problematic if you do have a caring culture but no formal structures to support it.”
As fears of a deep global recession mount, it’s unlikely that cases of moral (and conventional) burnout will diminish in number. Employees generally become more reluctant to switch jobs and escape toxic environments in tough economic times – a scenario that’s unlikely to bode well over the coming year.
“My gut feeling is that more people may feel that they have to stick with their employers because of all the economic uncertainty,” Ng says. “This situation could well lead to higher levels of burnout and lower levels of engagement.”