The lackluster Department of Labor April jobs report took just about everyone by surprise: the US economy showed a net increase of only 266,000 nonfarm jobs. With the country opening up after the winter’s lockdowns, some estimates projected that the total would be closer to a million new jobs. Did this mean that the economy was not rebounding as expected? Digging through the numbers showed perhaps a more troubling trend; the issue was not a scarcity of new jobs. Instead, there were too few people to fill open positions. We are facing a labor supply shortage rather than low labor demand. Carlos Gazitua, president and CEO of Sergio’s Restaurants in Southern California put a face on this predicament for CNBC’s Jeff Cox, “We’ve increased wages. We have about three different staffing agencies that are constantly looking for people,” Gazitua said. “Other restaurateurs are walking around neighborhoods passing out flyers. The heroes in our communities are the people currently working for you and me. These people are burnt out.”1
In multiple large-scale national surveys over the past year, the proportion of Americans reporting burnout has skyrocketed. Starting last summer, 68 percent of employees responding to a survey by Fishbowl Insights reported experiencing some form of burnout, with the number increasing to 79 percent in their new survey conducted this past January.2 Using a more structured sampling technique, the February results from Hartford’s Future of Benefits Pulse Survey were also alarmingly high. They reported 61 percent of workers experiencing burnout.3 Even as the economy is opening up, for many the well has run dry.
Burnout has become a somewhat ubiquitous term, colloquially meaning anything from ennui to stress to clinical depression. It was used in the mid 1970’s by Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe personality changes among health care providers who were working for free health clinics in the Bay Area. In describing the phenomenon he labeled “burnout,” he wrote about once dedicated workers exhibiting exhaustion and fatigue, irritation and frustration, and a rigidity of thinking that was also coupled with growing cynicism, suspicion, and perhaps counter-intuitively, overconfidence in their judgements.4
Psychologists Christina Maslach, Michael Leiter, and Susan Jackson continued with this line of research for the next thirty years identifying three attributes of burnout; emotional exhaustion, depersonalization of others, and reduced perceptions of personal accomplishment.5 However, emotional exhaustion, the feeling that one’s emotional resources are depleted, appears to be its primary driver. With emotional exhaustion, it isn’t so much that exhaustion is the primary emotion associated with burnout, instead the reservoir of positive emotions, which are necessary for healthy thoughts and behaviors, has been exhausted.
To understand how stressors in the workplace can deplete emotions, it’s important to note that burnout is neither a personal attribute, meaning that someone is genetically prone to it, nor is it the inevitable outcome of a stressed-filled job. Instead, burnout is likely to occur when stressors in the work environment outpace people’s coping resources. Over the past 30 years Psychologist Stevan Hobfoll has developed the theory of “conservation of resources,” or COR, to explain how people deal with stress. According to the theory, people are motivated to obtain, retain, protect, and foster those things that they value; what he labels as “resources.”6 Resources can be physical objects (food or shelter), conditions (being married or having a job), personal characteristics (self-efficacy or social support) and energies (being well-rested or having time for leisure). Resources are valued for their own sake, but they are also additive such that resources tend to strengthen other resources while the depletion of one will have detrimental effects on others. Resources help people weather stressful events, but on the other hand, stressors can deplete resources. I picture a light saber battle where resources and stressors are going at it. For most people, during normal times, this battle is ongoing with adequate resources to hold the negative effect of stressors at bay. But these have not been normal times with increased amounts and intensity of stressors most likely overpowering resources. It is the imbalance in this “battle” that leads to emotional exhaustion.
There are four principles from COR that help explain why emotional exhaustion can feel like hitting the bottom of a well. First, negative life events have stronger physiological, cognitive, and emotional costs. We feel negative events much more strongly than positive ones. Think about how one unpleasant interaction can stay with you out of proportion to all the positive ones you may have during a day. It takes more resources to emerge from negative events compared to the resources gained from positive outcomes. The idea that we can just “gut things out” until life returns to normal just isn’t true. It will take a good deal of personal investment in resources to make up for the emotional wear and tear accumulated from the myriad of stressful events over the past 15 months.
This leads to the second principle; people must actively engage in restoring and acquiring resources. Another adage that “time heals all” simply isn’t true. If people do not invest in restoring resources, then the third principle becomes evident. Downward spirals accelerate; as resources are used up, the additive effect of resources collapses, providing even less protection against stressors. This is why negative experiences this spring could feel so much more consequential than the same experiences last summer; there weren’t enough resources in place to counteract negative stressors. The longer the exposure to stressors, the more it takes to deal with them physically and emotionally, requiring a greater investment in resources to pull out of the depletion.
We might imagine that people experiencing burnout shut down emotionally, but the opposite can be true. The last principle states that because people are motivated to protect their resources, they can become defensive, aggressive, or even irrational when their resources are outstretched or depleted. This aggressive defensiveness can help to explain why Freudenberger’s health care providers became irritable, suspicious, and overconfident; their acting out was an attempt to protect their depleted sense of self.
Simplistically, there are two ways to deal with emotional exhaustion. People can make concerted efforts to rebuild resources, which can feel daunting when already exhausted. Or they can stop the laser battle with stressors and quit.
It appears that many are choosing the second option. The April jobs report noted that four million people had quit their jobs. To put that in perspective, “quits” as a share of employment was a record 2.7 percent. And this does not appear to be just a short-term adjustment. The Workforce Institute’s 2021 Engagement and Retention Report found that 52 percent of Americans plan to look for a new job in 20217.
For some Americans this will be a healthy transition. The pandemic has been an existential experience that has clarified their discernment of vocational purpose, energizing the leap of faith to make a career change. But for too many, quitting work to leave behind the source of their emotional exhaustion will staunch the stressors, but, following COR theory, will not replenish resources. Quitting can, in fact, make emotional exhaustion worse as it robs people of resources to help cope with the rest of life. Even under difficult circumstances work provides meaning, social support, friendship, financial security, feeling valued by others, a sense of the future, status, identity, belongingness, and pride in a job well done; all resources that Hobfoll has identified over the years that build up other resources and make a meaningful difference against life stressors. The cost of quitting is greater than most people realize.
It is likely that you or someone you know is part of that 52 percent of Americans who are thinking about moving on. Identity, purpose, and friendships are just a few of Hobfoll’s resources that cannot be recreated overnight by changing jobs. Quitting will not fill the well. Job demands in the near future are not likely to retrench in the efforts to get back to some semblance of normality. However, the new normal should include concerted organizational and individual efforts to build up resources. This could include department meals together, shaping meaningful work projects, intentional efforts to worship together, investing in friendships, finding an accountability group, reading scripture for the joy of it, and starting a writing project to submit to Christian Scholars Review. If we have learned anything over the past 15 months, it’s that much of what we thought in the past would be nice to do if we had the time is actually essential for our own resilience.
And if it feels like there is no other option besides quitting, then know that in Jesus, we have the ultimate resource of living water.
- Jeff Cox. April’s expected hiring boom goes bust as nonfarm payroll gain falls well short of estimates (CNBC May 7, 2020) https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/07/jobs-report-april-2021.html
- Herbert J. Freudenberger, “Staff Burn-Out,” Journal of Social Issues 30, no. 1 (1974): 159–165.
- Michael P. Leiter, Arnold B. Bakker, and Christina Maslach, Burnout at Work: A Psychological Perspective (London; Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014).
- Stevan E. Hobfoll, Jonathan Halbesleben, Jean-Pierre Neveu, and Mina Westman, “Conservation of resources in the organizational context: The reality of resources and their consequences,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 5 (2018): 103-128.