From existential and economic to social and environmental, the turmoil that brought 2020 was a rollercoaster of storm clouds and silver-linings. The shift to remote work that provoked chaos and left many emotions isolated at once created resilience in how, when and how. Where people worked, giving them back space to take care of themselves and their loved ones. The haze and reduction in traffic, which brought back wildlife and blue skies, was a contrast to the raging wildfires and orange haze. The openness and vulnerability among people fueled by a shared existential threat existed against a backdrop of heightened social tensions and police brutality.
Just as many leaders are starting to feel out of the woods, there appears to be a “great burnout” on the horizon. The unexpected and unprecedented challenges and changes of the past two years contribute to enormous levels of emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of incompetence – the three major dimensions of burnout. And with that burnout, we’ve seen poor employee health, increased absenteeism, and more interpersonal conflict in the workplace.
The pandemic created a context in which many experienced an increase in all three aspects of burnout, which had a severe impact on people and organizations alike. In the United States alone, the effects of workplace stress account for about 8% of our national spending on health care, or $190 billion, according to a 2015 analysis. A more recent study estimates the number to be closer to $300 billion, including health costs and lost revenue due to absenteeism and poor performance.
To meaningfully address this issue, organizations need to take a close look at how the workplace contributes to employee burnout and be part of that solution. Neuroscience research offers a new opportunity to understand and reduce burnout by identifying solutions that target each part of the problem. The three dimensions of burnout can be combated with three neurologically based abilities: emotion regulation, empathy, and metacognition.
1. Emotion regulation can combat emotional exhaustion. Positive relationships, engagement, and trust in the workplace are underpinned by complex brain mechanisms that use naturally occurring hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. These hormones can counteract the adverse effects of cortisol, which is produced by chronic exposure to stress and the associated emotional exhaustion component of burnout.
Research suggests that emotion regulation strategies can be either explicit (conscious processes that are effortful and intentional driven by the prefrontal cortex) or emergent (largely unconscious, driven by subcortical brain regions such as the amygdala). Acceptance, reappraisal, disengagement, and labeling are all approaches that can help us process our emotional experiences by strengthening the connectivity between our amygdala and our prefrontal cortex, reducing the likelihood of emotional hijacking—when our emotional processes take our lives away from us. takes normal rational processing.
2. Empathy can be a cure for cynicism. Feeling negative, cynical and dissatisfied all indicate low levels of empathy. Conversely, when people perceive their environment as safe and receive support from others, their oxytocin levels increase, which leads to reduced stress. Feelings of empathy towards others are related to increased levels of oxytocin and activation in brain regions corresponding to social feelings. And it goes both ways: Gaining empathy also reduces stress and cynicism. Increasing oxytocin by building empathetic and supportive relationships is an effective way to combat depersonalization and cynicism in the workplace.
3. Metacognition can counteract disability. Metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” describes your ability to understand and regulate your own thought patterns. It involves monitoring our mental processes during decision making and adjusting behavior to reach desired results. Cognitive skills are related to self-efficacy and learning outcomes.
Our brains are highly motivated by rewards, including social rewards, such as receiving praise from a manager or a promotion at work. Rewards increase dopamine levels, which not only predict immediate task motivation, but also the willingness to allocate time and effort to future activities. Another important role of dopamine in our brains is self-induced—or conscious-learning; It can improve self-awareness about the accuracy of decisions. This capacity for self-evaluation and awareness may be the key to combating the feelings of incompetence involved in employee burnout.
Equipping people with better skills to handle stress at work is just the first step. Talent management during the post-Covid era tackles the specific challenges posed by the changing work environment, business pressures and worry and anxiety related to the pandemic. In adjusting to the “new normal,” leaders must reject the notion that a burned-out employee population is an acceptable norm. By building social and emotional skills that enhance engagement, self-efficacy and emotion-regulation abilities, we can optimize performance and well-being, enabling people and organizations alike to address the root causes of burnout.