After all, burnout did not start with the pandemic. Research shows that the majority of physicians have been burned out for years. In one 2014 study, more than a quarter of Americans reported working between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., a greater proportion than in any other country in the analysis. For his book, which was published in 2018, Pfeffer interviewed an executive coach who said that almost all of her clients work a 10-to-12-hour day, then work more between 8 p.m. and midnight, and also work at least one weekend day. A quarter of U.S. adults have been threatened with firing for taking time off to recover from an illness or to care for a sick relative, a 2014 survey found. Mobile medical clinics roam around Silicon Valley because, as one medical-group executive put it to a Fortune reporter in 2015, “People are so freaking busy they can’t even imagine going out to the doctor.”
The pandemic has only exacerbated burnout: Job expectations haven’t changed, even as workers try to avoid infection, look after their families, and stave off existential dread. O’Neill, the George Mason professor, has found that having “companionate love” at work—close friends you can commiserate and celebrate with—helps guard against burnout. But most American office workers have been separated from these support systems for nearly a year.
On the Women at Work podcast, O’Neill offered tips to avoid burnout, such as getting more sleep, and reducing the time you spend on tasks you don’t like and increasing the time you spend on tasks you enjoy. If you find your colleagues annoying instead of refreshing, ask for an office “a little far away,” or ask if you can work from home more (once working conditions return to normal). But again, all of these changes are up to the employer. Your employer has to reduce your hours so that you can get more sleep or give you permission to work from home. Your employer has to approve your decision to do less of the things you hate.
Managers could be part of the solution too. Companies could try hiring more of them. In his book, Pfeffer points out that positive reinforcement tends to be important to workers, but that “companies run very lean in terms of the number of managers, which makes providing any sort of positive feedback and social support difficult because people are too busy to take care of others.”
Not everyone’s job can instantly become more easygoing right now. Many doctors and nurses feel burned out because of the sheer volume of COVID-19 patients they are treating. However, much of doctors’ burnout comes from the hours they have to spend creating and updating electronic medical records—yet another thing their employers determine.
Where employers are unable or unwilling to give people a break, the government could step in. Unfortunately, it has failed to do that. As meatpacking workers began dying at the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump administration allowed plants to increase their line speeds, making it harder for workers to socially distance. Many states still don’t have a mask mandate, putting frontline workers at risk. The federal government does not require that private-sector employers provide paid sick leave or family leave. The COVID-19 stimulus package President Joe Biden signed into law yesterday includes tax credits for certain employers who choose to offer paid sick leave, but no requirement that they do so. If you get sick, need to quarantine, or need to take care of your family members, “right now you are at the whim of your employer,” says Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow on paid-leave policy at the think tank New America.
Some of these stressors will end with the pandemic, but even then, the cratered economy will create a difficult environment for workers. Even after they’re vaccinated, Americans are still likely to face burnout. On his podcast, Grant, the psychologist, summarized the keys to preventing burnout as “demand, control, and support”: Place fewer demands on people, give them more control over how to handle those demands, and provide support to handle them. All three are within your boss’s power.