Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
September 23, 2023

Companies Blame Workplace Burnout on Individuals. It’s Time to Rewrite That Lie.

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet in the last few years, you’re probably aware of the rise of recent dialogue around employee burnout. The post-Covid era has starkly highlighted all the ways in which workers have been taken advantage of, worked to their extremes, and been overall unsupported at their jobs. For a while, it seemed like employees had the upper hand. They were able to (mostly) call the shots when it came to working from home and getting paid leave for becoming sick. And although some employers have made changes for the better that have actually stuck, many managers and bosses have returned to standard operating procedures.

In the aftermath of Covid, many individuals have begun to realize that their work-life balance isn’t healthy, and that the workload placed on them is unfair and imbalanced. Trends like TikTok’s “lazy girl job” and “quiet quitting” celebrate putting a halt to continually going above and beyond at work, and instead doing the minimum job requirements to bring home a paycheck. These trends, while empowering for many, also highlight a serious problem in our culture: workers are burned out, and the very companies perpetuating this burnout are placing the blame on individuals.

The truth is, burnout is not the fault of any individual. It’s a systemic issue upheld by corporations. Workplace burnout is on your employer – not you – to mitigate. But there are still things that you as an employee can do to minimize the risk of your own burnout. Understanding what to do about burnout can help you feel more supported, values-aligned, and empowered at work and beyond.

Companies and burnout

How Society Weaponizes the Language of Burnout and Mental Health 

When you think about the term ‘burnout’, what words or phrases come to mind? Maybe you think of symptomatic descriptions, such as some of the following:

  • Exhausted
  • Overworked
  • Needs a break
  • Needs more support
  • Needs more time off

These phrases describe symptoms of burnout, and also the needs of the person who’s burned out. While these descriptive symptoms are all accurate, they place the burden of burnout on the individual who’s experiencing it. In other words, they make it sound like something the employee needs to manage or deal with. 

We also talk about burnout as a moral failing on the part of the person who’s burned out. Words or phrases like these might include:

  • Unmotivated
  • Disorganized
  • Doing the bare minimum
  • Lazy
  • Selfish
  • Irresponsible
  • Bored
  • Not a team player
  • Uncommitted

Just like symptomatic descriptions of burnout, the language of individual moral failure puts all the blame for burnout directly on the person who’s burned out. When language like this is used, it’s more likely that those people will be judged and blamed for their poor mental health and burnout. It’s also much more likely that the responsibility to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop being burned out will fall solely on their shoulders.

Our society loves to place personal blame on people for problems that are inherently systemic. This puts all the responsibility of change on individuals, and takes people in power off the hook for creating worthwhile change. The way burnout is discussed in western culture is no different. The language around burnout isn’t coincidental. Unfortunately, shaming individuals into making themselves think they’re the problem is a purposeful tactic used by many organizations and employers. 

Workplace burnout

Workplace Burnout is Not Your Fault

The truth is, workplace burnout is not your fault. No matter what the language and cultural norms are around it, workplace burnout is the fault of management and companies. Things that contribute to burnout include things like pay, workload, management, and support. All of these things are often outside the control of an individual employee. You may have some say in your pay, for example, but it’s usually not up to you what you’re paid, and asking for a pay increase isn’t always feasible.

Remember during Covid-19 when everyone was saying thank you to nurses and teachers, who were all supposed to keep working as though everything was normal, without actually increasing their pay or giving them hazard pay or extra benefits? This is a perfect example of performing empathy without making the necessary and systemic changes that would fix the problem. 

Your workplace and manager should have your back when it comes to preventing burnout. So many companies try to slap on band-aid fixes to huge problems and hope that it will be enough to keep their employees happy. They might buy employees small gifts, for example, or offer discount gym classes or yoga sessions. This is a start, but it’s not fixing the real root causes. The root causes of burnout are that you’re expected to do the job of multiple people, expected to juggle too many things at once, expected to work late, seen as replaceable, and aren’t given appropriate benefits such as sufficient healthcare and paid leave. All this while being underpaid and shamed if your performance isn’t always at 110%. 

The Fight Against Companies and Burnout: What You Can Do

Setting boundaries is one of the best ways you can take control back in your workplace. Doing more all the time is a frequent expectation at work, even if it goes unsaid. This is especially true if you have other coworkers who go above and beyond all the time by staying late, taking on more than their share of work, and being underpaid. Setting and maintaining boundaries can help decrease your workload, get you the support you need, and do your job with less stress and anxiety.

Setting boundaries is unfortunately much easier said than done. Telling your boss you won’t work late or be available after hours can bring up a lot of feelings of deep shame and anxiety if you link your self-worth to your productivity or people-pleasing, for example. Plus, if you work in a cutthroat environment or one where there’s no precedent for employees advocating for themselves, it can feel incredibly vulnerable and scary to be the one doing that. However, boundaries are crucial to you having a successful and sustainable life – at work, at home, and everything in-between. I write about boundaries in my blog a lot because they’re the one area of our lives that we can control. Through boundaries, we protect our time and resources, ask for what we need, and teach others how we want to be treated. 

Therapy and Coaching Can Help You Combat Workplace Burnout

You don’t need to stay burned out and stuck in a shame spiral for the rest of your career. If you want support combating workplace burnout and protecting your mental health, I'm here to help.

Together, we can reframe the way you think about boundaries and burnout. We’ll work together to find new ways to navigate unfair situations, find suitable solutions, and focus on your own goals. 

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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