Feeling demotivated at work? You could be experiencing moral burnout

Written by Katie Rosseinsky

According to a recent study, this type of burnout could be “more intense” – and harder to shake off.

Have you ever been ground down by a job where the work culture seemed increasingly at odds with your own personal ideals? Or felt drained by the way that management treated you and your colleagues’ concerns? Perhaps you’ve wondered whether your work is really making a difference. 

If that’s the case, you might have been experiencing moral burnout, a type of burnout which, according to a recent study, can prove more intense in its impact – and more difficult to overcome.

Many of us will already be all too familiar with the symptoms of burnout. The World Health Organisation has defined the condition as an occupational phenomenon, characterised by “feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy,” Dr Sarah O’Neil, clinical director at Spectrum.Life, tells Stylist.

Moral burnout, however, speaks to more than work volume and job design: it can indicate a fundamental lack of compatibility between you and the company you work for. “It is linked to how an organisation operates,” O’Neil says, adding that the ‘moral’ component refers to moral injury, which is “a phenomenon whereby an individual suffers distress resulting from feelings of helplessness or guilt. This distress stems from an individual believing they have participated in or failed to stand up for what’s right or morally just.” 

Though the term might sound a bit dramatic, you don’t have to work at a dubious mega-corporation like Succession’s Waystar Royco or Industry’s Pierpoint to experience moral injury at work. It could mean anything from noticing the HR department’s failure to act upon a complaint, being part of an unfair redundancy process or feeling pressure to behave in a way that clashes with your personal values. 

“When my company announced some major job cuts a few years back, I managed to keep my job after a long drawn-out redundancy process, but the whole thing really changed how I felt about my work,” says Lorna*, 28. “I felt totally undervalued and demotivated, and I was shocked at how others were treated. It had a real knock-on effect and it was definitely a big factor in me eventually leaving the company not too long after.”

Quitting (and not the quiet kind) seems to be a common outcome in such cases. A recent study from psychologists at the University of Sheffield and consultancies Affinity Health and Softer Success, which analysed the experiences of workers in different industries ranging from law to healthcare to HR, found that the combination of “emotional exhaustion, cynicism and moral injury” resulted in a moral burnout that is “far more challenging for people to overcome”. 

Although the study participants’ experiences of moral injury differed in source, severity and length, “all [the people] we spoke to had either left employment or were actively seeking new employment” as a result, said Professor Karina Nielsen, chair of work psychology at the University of Sheffield. 

What is the impact of moral burnout?

What are the warning signs of burnout?

The warning signs will be similar to those experienced with classic burnout but, the study’s authors suggest, workers might also find themselves struggling with a sense of shame or embarrassment (often focused around a workplace event), thinking of worst-case scenarios or feeling anxious and fearful throughout the working day. 

“Moral injury significantly impacts an employee’s sense of purpose and belonging within the workplace and in their relationship with themselves,” O’Neil tells Stylist. “People experiencing burnout often disengage with colleagues [and] many will look to leave an organisation when it becomes too much to bear,” she adds.

Leaving a toxic workplace and moving on to a new job, she says, is “only the first step in addressing the impact of burnout”, and the after-effects can cast a shadow.

“Often, the trauma of moral injury carries over, affecting an individual’s trust within their new organisation,” she explains. “They may be slower to integrate into company culture, keeping their distance from leadership and colleagues, which can negatively impact performance during that critical onboarding period.”

On a happier note, the University of Sheffield’s study also found that participants who had experienced moral burnout often went on to make a more positive impact through their work, as an act of “moral repair”. That might be through voluntary work, or even setting up their own business in a way that’s better aligned with their personal values. 

What should I do if I’m experiencing burnout? 

If you’re noticing any of the burnout red flags mentioned above, it’s important to focus on recovery and rebuilding, says O’Neil.

Some practical steps can include “implementing self-care routines, engaging with activities that provide relief and bring joy, removing oneself from toxic situations and speaking to professionals, such as GPs or mental health professionals”.

It’s also important to remember you are not alone, she adds: “The sooner you begin to address the sources of distress, the sooner you begin your recovery.” 

*Names have been changed

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’s list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]
In a crisis, call 999.

Images: Getty

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