Soaring rates of voluntary resignations, widespread labor shortages, and the ubiquity of "Help Wanted" signs put the "labor" back in the Labor Day holiday this year, as employers struggle to respond to a jobs market that seems, for once, to have given workers the upper hand.
Story after story blames current labor market conditions on "burnout," an occupational phenomenon the World Health Organization describes as a combination of symptoms that includes emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishment. "Burnout — and opportunity — are driving record wave of quitting," the Deseret (Utah) News declared in August.
But what if the diagnosis — or rather, what we call it — is a symptom of the real problem? Naming the phenomenon for its toll on workers, rather than for the working conditions that drive it, skews our understanding of what's wrong and how to fix it.
The word "burnout" calls to mind a candle that's used up its wax or wick, a metaphor that blames individuals for lacking the stamina to handle stressful working conditions. It is also stigmatizing; no employer wants to hear a prospective hire left a job because they were "burned out."
Burnout implies weakness, and the typical solutions, reported in articles like "America's workers are exhausted and burned out – and some employers are taking notice," bear this out: more paid time off, mental health counseling, flexible schedules, and others.
Workers Need Systemic Solutions, Not Coping Strategies
Such benefits are important, but they won't solve the problem. Half of U.S. workers skip vacation because time off means an even bigger workload when they return. Mental health counseling won't fix unequal pay or bullying bosses. And flexible schedules often mask expectations to be on call 24-7.
These solutions focus on helping individuals "cope." They presuppose a problem with the candle, not the room in which it burns.
Flames also flicker and die from a lack of oxygen. Too many workplaces are airless rooms that snuff out workers' energy and enthusiasm. And contrary to conventional wisdom, these suffocating conditions predate the pandemic. The number of workers who voluntarily quit their jobs nearly doubled to 40 million between 2010 and 2018, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nor is it responsible for bad bosses and toxic coworkers, unchecked by HR departments; discrimination and implicit biases that lead high performers to get passed over for promotion and other recognition; or a collective sense of ennui from stultifying labor.
Burned by Bad Policy
Workers aren't burning out. They're getting burned — and making a healthy choice to opt out and save themselves. The "great resignation" of 2021 might more aptly be called a "great awakening."
When people flee a burning building, we call them survivors and put out the fire; we don't blame their burns on a lack of fire-retardant skin and send them back in with a bottle of water and some deep-breathing exercises. We shouldn't do that to our workers, either.
What can we do? We can start by naming the problem in a way that points to its causes, not its effects. We need more headlines like "Pay inequity drives record wave of quitting" and "Mismanagement and exploitation spur 'the great resignation.'"
Beyond that, we need to treat our toxic culture of work as a public health problem. We need national standards for management skills and OSHA rules that address mental health hazards. We need tax incentives for employers who adopt pro-worker policies such as transparent salary scales and equitable professional development pathways, and who end the year without unused vacation days on their books. We need to rebalance power in the workplace by passing the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act and normalizing mediation and alternative dispute resolution practices in non-unionized workplaces.
We also need a policy infrastructure that supports all Americans in all aspects of their lives, such as a single-payer health system, subsidized child and elder care, national paid leave policies, and minimum wage laws that are tied to inflation.
Our incessant talk about worker burnout provides easy cover to the real weak link in our workforce: bad working conditions and the policymakers and employers who allow them. They waste tremendous resources, from the cost of replacing employees who quit to the lost productivity of the demoralized staff left behind. This year, as American workers weigh their options, it's worth remembering that the very first Labor Day wasn't a holiday granted to weary workers, but a one-day strike they organized themselves.