Many of us are no stranger to burnout, which results from chronic workplace stress that’s been left unchecked. Symptoms you might be familiar with include exhaustion, disengagement and reduced productivity.
But now, say researchers, a new type of burnout is emerging that’s leaving workers feeling fearful, unable to switch off and experiencing intrusive thoughts, with long-term repercussions for physical and mental health.
‘Moral burnout’ is caused by working in toxic environments – particularly in jobs where people feel a sense of injustice, according to research from the University of Sheffield, Affinity Health and burnout prevention consultancy Softer Success.
A study revealed that moral injury – which refers to the lasting impact that is caused by performing, witnessing or failing to prevent an action that violates your own moral beliefs – and the stress it causes, is giving rise to a more intense type of burnout in people across many business sectors.
This ‘moral burnout’ is far more challenging for people to overcome, say researchers. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the study found people felt they had no other option but to resign from their jobs because of it, with some likening it to being in an abusive relationship.
A colleague’s transgression or betrayal; unfair redundancy selection; failure to act upon a whistleblowing complaint; and leadership humiliation, manipulation or control are all examples of moral injury which can happen at work.
When people experience this over a period of time, and become ‘morally burnt out’ as a result, they can experience symptoms such as:
Feeling ashamed or embarrassed by an event that’s happened in the workplace
Feeling more fatigued
Feeling fearful or anxious during the day
Unable to switch off from work, unwind or relax
Having intrusive thoughts about work or worries
Thinking of worst-case scenarios
Feeling disinterested and disengaged in work/your day-to-day life
Emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.
If these symptoms are left unchecked and are experienced over a long period of time, it can lead to poor mental and physical health.
Cara de Lange, a burnout expert and founder of Softer Success, said: “Moral injury can be the result of a toxic workplace culture with procedures that are not looking after the wellbeing of their employees sufficiently.
“Through our research we have found that when someone sits in emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and moral injury for too long, this can contribute to burnout.”
The study, which involved interviews with 16 participants, set out to explore the impact of moral injury in a wide range of professions.
Historically, studies on moral injury have been conducted in high stakes ‘life or death’ jobs, such as in the military or healthcare. But those involved in the new research were professionals working in advertising, law, technology, telecommunications, corporate healthcare, human resources, behavioural science, accounting, banking and finance at various levels of seniority.
Some examples of moral injury the participants experienced at work included:
Seeing senior leaders receiving large dividends during staff redundancies
Leadership styles involving humiliation, fear, control and manipulation
Failing to comply with legislation or regulation
Misuse of funding
Targeting financially vulnerable clients
Dispassionate treatment of employees with medical emergencies or personal challenges.
When participants realised they’d witnessed or learned of an event that had challenged their moral beliefs – and it was a one-off event – they felt shock, confusion, petulance, failure and numbness, according to the study. Whereas people who experienced it gradually found the initial shock subsided and they became almost apathetic.
Most participants found themselves taking immediate action to remedy the situation, however it was the organisation’s response – or lack of – to their immediate action that compounded the experience of moral stress.
Examples included brushing off their concerns and being told “not to mess with this” and “just leave it”, unwillingness from leaders to receive feedback, or a continuation of the wrongdoing action, decision or behaviour. Some were met with silence.
One participant felt that in calling out the wrongdoing, they had “become the enemy”, whilst another noted that in choosing to call out the wrongdoing they had “made my life and my family’s life hell”.
The sense of powerlessness and moral violation that participants experienced prompted more permanent action. For some, this meant leaving their jobs, for others it meant taking sabbaticals and career breaks. Others set up their own businesses, whilst some were signed off work for depression or anxiety.
All in all, such events can leave people morally burnt out, as well as experiencing a sense of apathy, despondency and reduced motivation, said researchers.
Participants suffered from feelings of anger, betrayal, hopelessness and powerlessness. In fact, several participants likened their experience to that of
being in an abusive relationship that they couldn’t escape.
Professor Karina Nielsen, chair of work psychology at Sheffield University, said: “We found that those being forced to perform acts that went against their moral values tried to remedy such acts. All we spoke to had either left employment or were actively seeking new employment.”
Often, those who had left employment sought to make up for wrongdoing by either doing voluntary work or setting up businesses where they could ensure work was conducted according to their moral values.
“We call this moral repair,” added Prof Nielsen.
Moral burnout could be behind some of the workplace trends we’re seeing at the moment, said de Lange, such as The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting (where people simply do what their job demands of them and nothing more).
“These phenomena are occurring because people can no longer work the way they have been,” she said. “Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t actively choosing to disengage from work, it’s more the case that they’re struggling to cope with this ‘always-on’ hustle culture that we as a society have created, coupled with one crisis after the next. For example: a pandemic, a war, global warming, the cost-of-living crisis and more.
“This way of working – combined with negative environmental factors – is a recipe for extreme burnout, and it’s simply not sustainable.”
The study, while small, is a further sign that “we need to change the way we work by addressing moral injury and burnout structurally,” said de Lange.
Going forward it’s important for companies to align their ethics and purpose with the world’s needs and problems, which, she said, can result in increased productivity and happiness.
Tips for people experiencing moral burnout
Look for allyship and support – either within the organisation, or outside through friends, family or a coach or counsellor.
Invest in self-care, whether that be taking exercise, time in nature, practicing acceptance and perspective taking or prioritising recovery time.
Try and find elements of the situation that you can control. This could be as simple as taking recordings, and making notes about what is happening, or it could be overturning or speaking up about smaller immoral decisions.
Think about learning and skill development. This could be in-role, developing new skills or undertaking voluntary or pro-bono work aligned to your values and skill set. Reflect on your skills and what this could mean for your future.
Reflect upon what your experience of moral stress tells you about you want and need in your role and job. Do you need to look for roles more aligned to your value system? How will you go about doing that? How could you use this experience to grow and develop?
Seek professional help if you are struggling with feeling such as anxiety, depression and burnout.