Understanding (and combatting) burnout
Jennifer Moss
Expert on burnout and workplace well-being, journalist, speaker, columnist, and author of Unlocking Happiness at Work and The Burnout Epidemic

Millions of us aren’t just working from home; we’re living at work. Our work days have increased by an average of 48 minutes since the start of the pandemic. Women are taking on more work at home. Many of us, especially Millennials, are feeling unfulfilled and isolated at our jobs. The result: burnout. But burnout was a problem well before COVID-19 hit. In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” The pandemic has “put a match to a workforce in drought,” says Jennifer Moss. She’s an expert on burnout and workplace well-being, an award-winning journalist, speaker, columnist, and author of Unlocking Happiness at Work and the forthcoming book, The Burnout Epidemic. Jennifer discusses the six root causes of our workplace burnout epidemic – all organizational problems that require organizational solutions. She also shares eye-opening findings from a new global study on burnout during the pandemic, and why empathy, psychological safety, and honest conversations at work are an antidote to our burnout crisis.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Advice on how organizations can start small to create big, systemic change that can combat workplace burnout
  • Why “self-care” and wellness apps are great for employee well-being, but they aren’t sufficient burnout prevention strategies
  • Industries and professions that are particularly susceptible to worker burnout (including health care and technology)
  • Differences in how people are affected by burnout according to gender, race, and age
  • How compassion fatigue, empathy fatigue, and perfectionism can lead to burnout


For more information, visit https://www.jennifer-moss.com/ and read Jennifer’s article, Beyond Burned Out, in Harvard Business Review.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Understanding (and combatting) burnout

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and for most of us, it's pretty easy to sum it up with one word right now, 'burnout'. My guest today is Jennifer Moss. She's an expert on burnout and workplace well-being. She's an award-winning journalist, speaker, columnist, and author of Unlocking Happiness At Work and the forthcoming book, The Burnout Epidemic.

In this episode, Jennifer and I talk about the root causes of burnout. What got us to feeling this way, and how do we fix it? We also get into why burnout isn't just your problem, but it's also your company's problem, and one they need to help solve. Have a listen.

Jennifer, thank you so much for being here today.

Jennifer Moss: Thanks for inviting me to talk to you about Burnout.

Emily Paisner: Burnout is a topic that so many of us can relate to right now. If you're anything like me, you aren't just working from home, you're living at work. Sometimes I can't tell if I'm just super stressed or burned out. Can you talk a little bit about what the difference is between those and what some telltale signs are that we are, in fact, burned out?

Jennifer Moss: Sure. Well, I'll first start with the definition of burnout, which has really been impacted by the World Health Organization's inclusion in the International Classification of Diseases, which basically has described now burnout as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress, and so this is what is so key to this, is that it's an occupational phenomenon, hence that we're not supposed to be defining burnout anymore as this life issue of too much busy or driving the kids all around town or playing the role of the soccer mom, it really is specific to stress unmanaged at work.

Emily Paisner: Do you think that burnout is a bigger problem now than it was before the pandemic, or are we just becoming more aware of it and what it's doing to us?

Jennifer Moss: Well, I've been researching workplace wellbeing for over a decade now and I'm also looking at burnout as a predictor of lack of wellness at work. It's been a problem for a long time. When you look at the root causes of burnout, you see that it's systemic issues that go back centuries, really.

When you analyze what's happened in this last year, I would say that we just put a match to our workforce and drought. I mean, it exacerbated all of the existing problems and made them just so much detrimentally worse.

Emily Paisner: A few weeks ago, I had friends and colleagues sending me an article left and right, that you had written in the Harvard Business Review. Clearly, it resonated with so many people, which I think just underscores how chronic this burnout epidemic really is right now. You've done, as you said, a global study on this, can you share some of the top-level findings and the key takeaways from your research?

Jennifer Moss: Yes, one of the things that's happened as a burnout expert is that, and fortunately, I've become extremely popular this year. I was working on my research and actually writing the book and had to scrap about 20,000 words and a bunch of the data when March 13th actually happened.

What we're seeing as far as just this last year around burnout, and the new study that we actually ran on well-being during the pandemic was that people are just feeling so overwhelmed by their work, and by their life during the pandemic. Some of the big stats that even surprised me, were that 89% of respondents said their work-life was getting worse. We found that 85% of respondents said their well-being had declined.

We found also that a lot of people were talking about their job demands having increased, but 56% of them said their job demands had increased. In the middle of a time where there's chronic stress, anxiety, grief, it shouldn't be business as usual. Then this was a really sad stat was that only 21% rated their well-being as good, but only a mere 2% rated as excellent. Roughly 80% of people just said that they were not well.

Emily Paisner: I think that there's a perception that we're no longer commuting. We have more time in our day, but I think as you mentioned, it does feel like because we have this perceived level of increased flexibility, what's happened is that we're actually more available all of the time, and we're able to be reached all of the time by our work. Can you talk about that? Like are we overworked or are we just over our work?

Jennifer Moss: I think there's a bit of both there. There's a lot of both there. We've found that our workday has increased by 48 minutes and when you look at the average commute time, it's usually 15 to 20 minutes both ways. That's approximately what we've replaced by just flipping on our laptop.

It used to be that people that work from home were already at risk of burnout because they did have a hard time separating work and life but when everyone started to work from home, it meant that they were placing the same demands and managers especially were placing more demands on people that were in their remote workforce.

A lot of that just has to do with the fact that we are forgetting that there needs to be a separation. We don't step away from work. We're burning more calories just to hit the same goals. We're spending about 30% more time in our day hitting those same pre-COVID goals, so we're just mentally exhausted. We have brain fog because it's essentially a symptom of chronic stress, which makes it harder for us to actually motivate, hard for us to get clarity on our tasks, we make more mistakes.

Essentially we're working harder, getting less productivity from the effort, and then we're trying to do this all while we're dealing with these external stressors and for a lot of parents, for example, that's also homeschooling and juggling familial demands. It's just a very unsustainable environment that we're in this year.

Emily Paisner: Hearing you say that makes me feel a little bit better that I am not the only one experiencing intense amounts of brain fog, so I appreciate that that's not something that I need to deal with on a personal level.

Jennifer Moss: I feel so good.

Emily Paisner: Can you tell us a little bit about really the root causes of this global burnout crisis?

Emily Paisner: Yes, absolutely. It's why I've been so focused on the employer in this book and leaders in this book, we've been given a lot of advice on how to manage our own burnout, but what is so important when you look at the root causes is that it's not an individualized problem, it's a we problem to solve. Yes, we should still have self-care. It's very important to optimize our wellbeing and, yes, we should go to work not expecting our employers to make us happy, but we should go expecting that they're not going to make us unhappy.

When you look at the six main causes of burnout, they're just overwork, so that unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, which is essentially feeling like you don't have choice in your job, that you're being micromanaged, that you have no agency. Insufficient rewards for effort. You see that a lot in, say, first responders, police officers, teachers, people that are working extra hours or overtime and not actually getting the type of compensation that deserve, or they're not being recognized for their work.

Lack of supportive communities. That the idea that we don't have friends at work, so isolation is playing a big role in that this year. Lack of fairness. We see that in issues where there's lack of diversity, where there's pay gaps, we see that in gender discrimination. Then also this final one, the sixth one is mismatched value and skills.

The idea that you're overqualified for a job or you're a manager and you really shouldn't have ever been a manager, you should be an individual contributor because that's what you're good at, but the way that our system works is that you get promoted and you become a leader when you shouldn't be. All of those six things end up making the cause or the most predicted risk for burnout in an organization.

Emily Paisner: How can organizations help employees and create a culture that doesn't lead to burnout?

Jennifer Moss: One of the things that I say has to be rooted in the solution is human-centered leadership or empathetic leadership. That's the big, I think, social, emotional scale that all leaders need to embrace and it needs to be the culture of the organization. That really means that you are thinking in this golden rule 2.0. It's not, "Do unto others as I would have done unto myself," because if you are someone that has privilege or bias, it's very difficult to provide solutions for a person that is marginalized or deals with something that you don't deal with.

You need to take that, like I said, the golden rule 2.0, which is, "Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves", which requires a lot of active listening, spending a lot of time and frequently asking how your people are doing and that's where the direct manager plays a big role. Where they're asking people at the end of the week, "How stressful was this week? What can I do to make next week better? How do I reduce barriers to your stress?"

It's really just a lot of conversations and making an environment where it's psychologically safe to talk about mental health, where there's no repercussions for someone having those conversations with you. That just initiates the big strategies. If everything's rooted in that, then all those other things that are burning us out, overwork, et cetera, end up being solved along the way, but it has to start with empathy.

Emily Paisner: If there are leaders and organizations who are listening to this right now and know that burnout is clearly an issue amongst their employees. A lot of companies are helping by giving access to a meditation app or something like that, but my guess is that that's not going to solve the issue. Where do they even start?

Jennifer Moss: Well, and I think that's a good point and one that I've been yelling from the rooftops lately is that again, wellbeing and self-care tactics are important. It's great that you provide an app to someone if they want to be able to use it, but someone that's been working 60 hours a week, and then they have their HR manager pushing them to use wellness tech when they don't feel that the real problems have been fixed, like their increasing workload. It feels very tone-deaf, and then we start to lose trust in an organization.

It really has to be that we first differentiate between what is a well-being solution over on one side and then separate out what your burnout prevention strategy is. That's tackling the big issues, that's including more focus on inclusion and diversity. That's thinking about what is your reward mechanism? Are you paying people properly for what they're worth? Does everyone get paid the same inside of an organization? There are just way bigger problems to address and solve if you're really looking at preventing burnout.

Emily Paisner: I love that idea of a burnout prevention strategy and I'm sure that a lot of companies are going to be thinking about that a lot more in the coming years. Can you talk about if there are certain industries or occupations that have been particularly susceptible to burnout?

Jennifer Moss: Yes, I did some deep dives into healthcare and education and technology. I discussed them quite extensively in the book. Obviously, there's other roles and sectors and basically, everyone as we can see from this year is at risk of burnout. When you look at healthcare, for example, part of one of the personalities that tends to attract those people into healthcare is first compassion, which we can fall victim to compassion fatigue, caregiver syndrome, which is what burnout was originally defined as, as someone who really cares about the people that they're serving, the stakeholders that they're serving.

Then also in healthcare, specifically around physicians and nurses, there's a perfectionist mentality, which is also a personality at risk of burnout. In those environments, we see a legacy of overwork. This attitude of working 60, 70 unsustainable hours is just baked in.

I had the chance of actually speaking with Dr. Lorna Breen's brother and actually, Dr. Lorna Breen, unfortunately, died by suicide from burnout. She was a physician in New York, in the front lines in March. What happened was she just felt like she couldn't ever live. She didn't feel like it was okay for her that she was letting down everyone inside of her team, and she had COVID and she went back to work after only a couple of days of having COVID.

All of these expectations make female physicians at a rate of about 140 points above the average as likely to commit suicide. Whereas their male counterparts are about 40 points above. You just see these real discrepancies in compassion fatigue, empathy fatigue, perfectionist, and then a culture of overwork really breeding in environments like healthcare.

Emily Paisner: Thank you for mentioning her. I remember reading about her and her story and it's a really powerful one that hopefully some other people can learn from. That was actually where I was going to go next. I was going to ask you if you saw any differences in how people are affected based on their gender and race and age.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. We found that women are more likely to burn out. Especially in this pandemic where we saw women really impacted in the maternal labor force. We saw women actually having to leave and feeling forced to leave because they could not juggle the 20 hours extra, they were working per week just to keep up with the demands and that's a major issue.

We also, in our research, found that millennials are particularly struggling right now with burnout. A lot of that has to do with the fact that now we see so many more young people in the workforce living alone, and also potentially their new role that they stepped into started without any communication or contact in real life with the people they're working with, their coworkers and boss.

So much of what we read in the qualitative data was just millennials feeling like their career's being held back, like they have indebted servitude to their job because of all of the debt that they owe, and they're not feeling connected, or happy, or purpose-driven in the work that they're doing.

Emily Paisner: I know that I miss my work friends, I miss going and grabbing a coffee, or sitting down for a quick lunch. This lack of social interaction is really contributing to, I feel, my burnout. How do you encourage people to really stay connected with their colleagues when we're so physically distanced from one another?

Jennifer Moss: We saw this in the data, this lack of community at workplace because, really, you can't replace in-real-life relationships with people with Zoom or video conferencing apps. It's just not the same, we're not wired that way. Also, because we are working so much in the day, we're finding that we're less likely to jump on another cocktail Zoom chat with our friends or family.

At first, we were doing that more, but now we're just so wiped out that we're really culling our friendships. The data show that around 39% of respondents said that they had just really struggled connecting with coworkers, and 50% said that they were struggling with connecting with friends. You add that all up, and it's a recipe for people feeling lonely.

One of the things I've been saying is that we just need to focus on understanding that this too shall pass, it will, we will get back to some sense of normalcy, but right now, just find a person, one person, whether it's at work or in life, that is that connection to the relationship that's healthy for you. Build on that, nurture that, spend time on that, and stop looking at quantity of relationships right now. We can get back to having more friends, but right now it has to be that we just take one important person at work, one important person in life, and nurture those relationships as best as we can.

Emily Paisner: I agree. The last thing I want to do after a day-long of Zoom calls is get on another one. It just leads to so much exhaustion. You did talk about getting back to some sort of normalcy. Please, hopefully, soon. Do you think that once we do start having more in-person interactions, whether that's physically going back into the office or being able to see friends, are you more optimistic about the heightened sense that organizations now have around employee wellness that you think we'll start to see some improvements?

Jennifer Moss: I hope so. I like to be optimistic. I think that this year did give us a shake, the workforce a reminder, and leaders a reminder of what a crisis can do to you in an organization and how vulnerable we are. I think that there is these big problems that a lot of leaders are so afraid to tackle. That's the thing with these six root causes, it's that they sometimes feel so big that it's impossible to tackle, and so we fall back into old patterns.

What I've been trying to get people to think about is that the solutions aren't that complicated. It's about starting with the fact that there's been a lot of change, so now's the time to jump in, because we're used to this change, we're able to handle unpredictability a bit more. But also that it really just starts with having more conversations with people, just talking to people more, and asking the right questions about your mental health and wellbeing, and create the solutions that aren't about an entire reboot, and rethinking burnout across the entire organization, and tackling all six causes.

Start small and empower your direct managers to make those changes. It will become crowdsourced. It will change. You'll feel it in the walls. The culture will shift, and it will catch on, it'll become a contagion.

Emily Paisner: As the burnout and workplace wellbeing expert that you are, what are you doing to personally keep burnout at bay right now?

Jennifer Moss: I am a victim of chronic stress and brain fog, and it does feel challenging for me sometimes to unload and load the dishwasher. For some reason, that's my thing. I just hate doing it.

Emily Paisner: Me too. [laughs]

Jennifer Moss: I hate it. It drives me so up the wall that I just have to do it so much. I've had to increase my self-care, because here's the thing with me, is that I am my own employer, and so I have to have the infrastructure and the policies that I support my one employee. Well, I have two now, but one is me. I have to constantly sort of, and that's what executives have to do too, is lift that, sort of step above yourself and say, "If I'm trying to model the behavior for my employees, am I doing what I need to do?"

There were times where I was writing a book on burnout, I had three kids at home that were doing asynchronous learning more like me homeschooling very badly, and there was so much noise. My husband was home too because we're all locked in the house. I was tired, I had a hard time focusing on my writing and my work, and it was discouraging.

I think what we need to understand is that even if we have tools, it can be really hard to battle those external stressors, but I started walking an hour a day, taking that time, which feels luxurious or frivolous, but it was the thing that I think saved me this year, emotionally and saved the book and saved my work. We do need to do those "frivolous things" because they can be the perfect antidote to burning out.

Emily Paisner: I couldn't agree with you more, walking has been such a key part of my mental health as well over the past year, and I am going to make sure I get my walk-in today. Thank you for the gentle reminder. Jennifer, can you just wrap up and let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your work?

Jennifer Moss: They can find me on my website, Jennifer-moss.com. I'm on LinkedIn too @JennlyMoss, and I'm really active there. So if anyone wants to ask questions, I'm happy to answer them. They can find all of my articles on Harvard Business Review, and the book is coming out in September. That's The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It.

Emily Paisner: Amazing. Thank you so much, Jennifer. We really appreciate you being here.

Jennifer Moss: Thanks for having me. It was a great conversation.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go. I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.