Learning & Development

Employees Aren’t the Only Ones Suffering from Burnout

We’re living in a split-screen world when it comes to burnout and the employee experience.

On one side are all the investments CEOs and HR executives have been making in recent years—and especially since the pandemic began—to support employee well-being and mental health. This is not just a warm-and-fuzzy benefit; rather, it’s an essential part of their business strategy, improving not only employee productivity but also recruitment and retention. Indeed, more than 100 companies, including Walmart, CVS Health, Pfizer, and Accenture, signed a pledge earlier this year with Thrive and the Society for Human Resource Management to prioritize the well-being and mental health of employees through the uncertain times that lie ahead.

On the other side of the screen is Elon Musk, who has made it seem, through his chaotic 4-week tenure at the helm of Twitter that’s been full of stunning missteps, reversals, and mass defections, as though the last several decades of research on the science of burnout and its effect on performance had never happened.

What this juxtaposition makes clear is that the science of well-being and how humans perform at their best continues to outpace the culture. We’ve come far, but we still have far to go.

With each passing day, the gap widens between the science and the new Twitter culture Musk is creating. Just a couple weeks ago, as the world watched hundreds of employees post 🫡 emojis as they resigned from Musk’s Twitter, psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter published The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships With Their Jobs. Maslach is the trailblazing researcher who helped introduce the idea of burnout with her seminal paper on the subject in 1976. In their new book, Maslach and Leiter focus on the root causes of burnout, which they consider a systemic problem requiring solutions at the organizational level. Burned-out employees, they say, are canaries in the broader culture of labor. “Should we try fixing the canary to make it stronger and more resilient—a tough old bird that could take whatever conditions it faced?” the authors ask. “Or should we fix the mine, clearing the toxic fumes and doing whatever else is necessary to make it safe for canaries (and miners) to do their work?”

There are still plenty of burnout-deniers—Musk may be the most visible, but he’s far from alone. FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried is another recent cautionary tale, described by Business Insider as “famously sleeping four hours a night on a beanbag chair next to his desk and taking calls from clients and investors at 3 a.m.” Murals around San Francisco command viewers to “rise and grind” even as the science has shown more and more definitively that this is far from a strategy for peak performance.

An Outdated Model Fueled by Burnout

Musk is not just inflicting an outdated way of working on his dwindling number of employees but also showing the downsides of a model fueled by burnout and a lack of sleep in his own decision-making. Studies have shown the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation are equivalent to being drunk—not the ideal state for high-stakes decision-making. The same Musk who has channeled his undeniable brilliance into revolutionizing how humans generate and use energy through technology is now ignoring the science of how humans generate and use energy themselves.

First, there was his rash rollout of the new Twitter Blue, followed by his abrupt rollback of Twitter Blue. He laid off half the company in one fell swoop and then attempted to rehire some of them days later. By day 13, Musk was issuing warnings of possible bankruptcy. The next week began with his tweet that he was going to be sleeping at the Twitter office “until the org is fixed.” The same day, in a video for the B20 conference in Indonesia, he said, “I have too much work on my plate, that is for sure,” and “I’m really working at the absolute most amount that I can work, from morning ’til night, seven days a week.” He added, “This is not something I recommend, frankly.”

He then gave his staffers an ultimatum: They could commit to an “extremely hardcore” version of Twitter, which would require “working long hours at high intensity,” or they could leave. The result? An hour after the deadline on the ultimatum passed, it became clear that many more engineers had resigned than Musk was expecting, and the hashtag #RIPTwitter started trending. As one recently laid-off employee put it, “People don’t want to sacrifice their mental health and family lives to make the richest man in the world richer.” Employees no longer feel they have to tolerate, let alone celebrate, this burnout-factory approach to work.

Shifting the Culture to Align with the Science

The idea that humans are simply vessels for work and can be made as efficient as machines goes back a lot further than Silicon Valley—it’s what drove the Industrial Revolution. Maslach gave us the language to describe burnout in 1976, but even 40 years later, when I launched Thrive with the mission to end the burnout epidemic, we still had to explain to CEOs and business leaders what burnout was and why they should care about it. Fast-forward a few years to the start of the pandemic, and addressing burnout began to seem essential to business success.

Culture doesn’t always shift when science does, and societies don’t roll out the welcome mat for theories that challenge the status quo. The science of burnout and human energy continues to grow more solid. But as these turbulent times throw into stark relief, too many leaders still buy into the outdated notion that chaotic times require them to be in constant motion and always on, matching the frenetic pace of the moment—“maniacal” was the word Musk used.

Real leadership isn’t about the quantity of decisions we make; it’s about the quality of those decisions. It’s not just about stamina; it’s about judgment. It’s about finding wisdom in the midst of uncertainty. It’s about standing steadfast as the hurricane swirls around us, not tilting with the breeze and amplifying the velocity of the winds.

We still have a lot of work to do for our culture to fully catch up to the science of how we perform at our best and thrive in all aspects of our lives. Ironically, Musk’s actions over the past few weeks have brought us closer to finally discrediting the delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for peak performance.

Arianna Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive, the founder of The Huffington Post, and the author of 15 books, including Thrive and The Sleep Revolution. In 2016, she launched Thrive, a leading behavior change tech company, with the mission of changing the way we work and live by ending the collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success. She has been named to Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people and the Forbes Most Powerful Women list.

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