Boiling the frog: How tech intensifies burnout and how ‘flexibility’ can help

Image: Merethe Wessel-Berg

Last year a report by Microsoft Work Trend Index showed that Australian workers were the most burnout of those surveyed, with 62% reporting that they felt ‘burnt out’ during 2022. Extensive research across multiple countries has shown work intensity has been steadily rising over the last two decades. Heavy workload is a major cause of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety, which are all key indicators and symptoms of burnout . In the UK, an alarming report at the end of last year showed that 1 in 6 of the workforce was sick with more than 50% of those illnesses being work-related mental health issues. The term burnout is now ubiquitous, and it could be argued that almost everyone has now experienced this syndrome at one point or another over the last few years. Journalist Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times last year, referenced statistics showing that whilst work has become physically safer. It has become psychologically more dangerous as workloads and expectations become unmanageable.  

Graph showing muscoskeletal disorders and psychological disorders occuring as a result of work
Source: Health & Safety Executive. Originally published in Financial Times December 15, 2022

The key components of burnout include exhaustion, detachment from work and inefficacy, the sense that you can’t accomplish what you need to with the resources you have. Christine Maslach and Michael Leiter, psychologists, and leaders in the research of Burnout, define it as a syndrome “emerging from chronic interpersonal stressors at work”. It is these interpersonal stressors that have been accelerating over the last two decades, so what is driving the acceleration?

Computers, clients, and colleagues

The constant use of technology is a key component in the increasing intensification of work over the last two decades. In a recent article titled “Working Still Harder”, Professor Francis Green of University College London and his colleagues found that the rising complexity of computers and related technology was the key factor for this rising intensity.

Similar findings were also found in a 2021 paper by the Institute for the Future of Work, who found that the next two biggest factors in work intensity were demands from clients and colleagues (including managers). We can understand work intensification as being driven by the accelerating intensity of client, colleague and manager demands, the engine of this acceleration being our digital technology.

Demands from clients and colleagues now pervade our homes, and what used to be our personal time. No wonder that people feel as though the intensity of work has increased. We are always on. This constant ‘always on’ state meaning that there is little time to rest and reflect on the work being completed and to generate the new ideas and approaches that are critical for creativity. Not only do these demands feed into exhaustion, but they can drive a sense of inefficacy and the resulting cynicism that was captured in the “quiet quitting” movement of 2022.  

A corrosive contagion

Burnout is a contagious syndrome and as such it can be a toxin that poisons the culture of a workplace. However, according to research by the McKinsey Health Institute last year, organisations underestimate the role that they play in creating this syndrome. What tends to happen as a result is that wellness programs are rolled out, which whilst well intentioned, put the responsibility of managing and dealing with this syndrome back on the individual. It becomes another thing for them to do or complete or succeed at whilst the same issues creating the problem remain. Without meaningful organisational change, individual efforts to cope with burnout are likely to fail, feeding into those feelings of inefficacy and cynicism, or worse.

What can be done? ‘Psychological Flexibility’ and ‘Self-Efficacy’

Research by Jacqueline Brassey and colleagues from McKinsey Health Institute state that the starting point for change is with leadership teams. The effective role modelling of behaviours by leaders can help to alleviate their own symptoms of burnout whilst adapting behaviours that change how team’s function. Without positive examples of leaders tackling these problems for themselves and their teams, broader organisational change is impossible.

Brassey and her colleagues found that teaching the skills of what is known as “psychological flexibility” has a significant impact on a leaders sense of efficacy. Remember that efficacy or its lack of, is a key component in the development of burnout. In fact, Michael Leiter, one of the leading researchers in the field refers to burnout as a “crisis in self-efficacy”.

Psychological flexibility is the capacity to remain in the present moment despite unpleasant thought, emotions, and bodily sensations; whilst choosing to act based on the situation and one’s values. Psychological flexibility has been found to be highly effective in the treatment of mental health issues in clinical and workplace settings.

The 3 core pillars and six sub processes of Psychological Flexibility

No alt text provided for this image
Image: The 3 Pillars and Six Core Process of Psychological Flexibility. Reference: Harris, 2009

1. Being Open to Experience, with Acceptance and De-fusion

Being open to experience, is being aware of the different thoughts, emotions and sensations taking place. Opening to experience involves acceptance, something often misunderstood as passivity. What acceptance means is an act of will based on what is here now, what is available. Defusion, relates to identifying internal experiences such as thoughts as being just that, experiences, not fixed truth. In fact, it is easy to think of defusion in context of its opposite, fusion. Psychological flexibility is about ‘de-fusing’ or creating some space between our thoughts and emotions, not being caught up in them.      

2. Being Present, via contact with the present moment and ‘Self-as-context’

Being present means maintaining a non-judgmental awareness of what is happening now, without trying to change it. It is otherwise popularly known as mindfulness. Self-as-context can be understood in comparison to its opposite which is ‘self-as-content’ i.e. you are the content of your thoughts and feelings. Self-as-context refers to the sense that you are the one experiencing the content of your mind, rather than being the content itself. An example of ‘self-as-context’ is when a mistake is made at work, or a conflict arises, the individual sees this in context of the bigger picture, rather than catastrophising this event into their downfall.

3. Do what matters, informed by Values and through Committed Action

Doing what matters implies that you need to know what is important before committing to action. This commitment requires the understanding or discovery of your values so that your goals align with them. Values are the compass pointing in a certain direction, whilst goals are the destination. To reach this destination, committed actions are required to follow through, action that persists even when unpleasant bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts arise.

Self-Efficacy and the benefit of social support

Through two 4.5 workshops and one 2.5 hour ‘booster’ workshop, Brassey and her colleagues from Maastricht University and the McKinsey Health Institute demonstrated that the psychological flexibility skills listed above could be cultivated and that this had a positive effect on self-efficacy, one of the key factors in burnout.

One of the benefits of developing these kinds of skills in a group setting relates to the social context and support inherent in the training. Extensive research has shown that one of the best treatments for burnout is providing social support for those struggling. Group settings remove the isolation and misplaced sense of personal failing and provide social reinforcement and support for learning new skills.

Caveat and conclusion

What is important to note here is that psychological flexibility doesn’t mean happiness. The aim of developing these skills isn’t to promote a grin-and-bear-it attitude, but to help people navigate the shoals of shifting circumstance.

Maslach and Leiter make clear in their research that Burnout, is syndrome fundamentally caused by organisations and as such requires an organisational response. One of these organisational responses is equipping leaders to role model the right behaviours so they cultivate a culture of support. Psychological flexibility is a mindset and set of behaviours that can be a pillar of this support. The development of these psychological skills is an evidenced based way of alleviating one of the key factors in burnout, self-efficacy. However, without additional changes to organisational elements like workload, employee autonomy, rewards and quality performance reviews, these efforts will be in vain.

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