Combating burnout: Fred Hutch psychologist on how employers can support workers

Fred Hutch psychologist and associate professor Megan Shen at the 2022 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong).

The phrase “burnout” has taken on new meaning during the pandemic.

Forty percent of people in 2020 said the pandemic had affected their mental health, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Women and people aged 18-to-24 reported even higher rates of mental health challenges.

“I would argue what we’re experiencing right now goes kind of above and beyond what traditional burnout looks like,” said Megan Shen, a psychologist and associate professor with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who studies grief in individuals and families with terminal cancer.

“We’ve got COVID we’ve had mass shootings, we’ve got wars, it’s a hard time,” said Shen. “The burnout we’re experiencing right now is a lot of trauma, stress, uncertainty, loneliness, loss and ultimately grief that has not been dealt with, that has nowhere to go.”

Shen spoke at the GeekWire Summit earlier this month in Seattle. She broke down the reasons for the enduring burnout and offered solutions for workplaces.

Shen said many people are dealing with personal and collective grief — for lost loved ones; for missed futures, freedom and daily rhythms; and for the loss of social connection.

She said that while people tend to want to run away from loss and sadness, with grief, “you have to grieve and move through it.” She quoted the poet Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Amidst loss people can find light and resilience.

Workplaces can adapt to help their employees move through grief-related burnout and energize and motivate their workforce, said Shen. Just taking a vacation is not the right prescription.

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“I would like to argue that what we’re experiencing collectively is not a liability,” she said. “There’s actually a real opportunity to rethink how we do things.”

Employers have potentially a lot to gain, said Shen. Depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy $1 trillion each year, mainly in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization.

Shen said employers could create infrastructure to support workers in three ways: building connection, hope and meaning.

Building connection:

People have experienced a lot of loneliness during the pandemic, and employers can help build connection among team members and supervisors.

“We have to think about how to do that meaningfully,” said Shen. “This could be one-on-one, check-ins with team members, seeing how people are actually doing; having purposeful in-person meetings and events where you get to catch up on each other’s lives.”

Ways workplaces can support employees. (Megan Shen Image)

Fostering hope:

People don’t need to think that things will go back to how they once were or that work and life will be easy, said Shen. But people “do need vision” for how they can adapt meaningfully to the way things operate now. “The key to hope is vision,” said Shen.

Creating meaning:

Meaning is key,” said Shen. “Most of the time burnout doesn’t happen because there’s too much work and not enough time. It often happens because there’s not a meaningful connection to the work that we’re doing,” she said. There’s a lot of different ways employers can infuse work with meaning, and it’s important to do.

Added Shen: “If you can find ways to infuse meaning throughout your teams and even in yourself, you will be amazed at how that reduces the feeling of burnout.”

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