All Work and No Play

Walking into work this past week, I began to make my way up the flights of stairs lined with windows.  Above the alley filled with cars, a squirrel scurried along a wire.  I paused long enough to observe this rodent. It scooted forward at an energetic pace, then paused, precariously balancing above the unsuspecting vehicles, then scampered along a bit further until it was out of sight. 

Continuing my ritualistic workday ascent, I reflected on the delicate balancing act of the trapeze-squirrel and the ways in which it reflected our current work culture. Since the onset of COVID, the demands and pressure upon the labor force have greatly increased. From longer work hours to added levels of responsibility, many workers feel a lack of control over their work environment–which are often becoming more socially toxic.  Additionally, workers frequently cite insufficient reward, a lack of fairness, and even a conflict of values with the ever increasing work demands.  It’s no wonder that many workers choose to walk away. Unfortunately, the downside for those who choose to remain is that they are merely expected to pick up the extra workload, usually without any appropriate compensation or support.

A squirrel on the playground at my own worksite in the evening sun. There is actually another squirrel nearby, but it dropped out of sight just as I clicked the photo.

To add further fuel to the fire, complaints of worker burnout are often met with the belief that there is something innately wrong with the employee–that the worker is “not the right fit,” or “not a team player,” rather than examine the workplace culture. This has led to one of the highest levels of “quit-rates” since the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics began keeping records” according to their April 2021 data.   In fact, based on a growing body of evidence, it’s looking as if those business leaders who do not seriously rethink how they approach the workplace culture will most likely face issues with worker retention and shrinking work pools, leading to decreased productivity and/or unreliable timelines. 

While the term “burnout” has been around for decades, the World Health Organization only recently identified worker burnout as a real phenomenon beginning in 2019.  According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, worker burnout is caused by high levels of stress causing the worker to feel cynical and distant from their job which in turn affects their productivity, and more importantly, their personal health. He believes that burnout is a “serious health hazard”

Meanwhile the squirrel’s health is at risk as hawk waits above for his opportunity to attack.

“No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease.”–Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

To add further support to the WHO’s identification of worker burnout phenomenon, Winona State University has identified five distinct stages of burnout.  These stages include: 

The Honeymoon Stage:  The excitement of the new job/role/position does not allow the worker to realize their workload is unrealistically large as it can be easily written-off due to the newness of the job, but can soon enough push the worker into the next stage. 

The Balancing Stage:  The employee begins to struggle with life-work balance. As the scales tilt more towards work, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and early signs of dissatisfaction lead to self-detrimental, coping behaviors, such as increased drinking, eating, smoking, and other forms of escapism.  With continued worksite pressure, the employee is nudged closer to burnout.

The Chronic Stage:  The worker is now often filled with persistent anger/resentment, depression, chronic exhaustion, physical illness, and so forth. 

The Crisis Stage:  Without intervention, the worker is overwhelmed by feelings of jadeness, powerlessness, pessimistic thinking, and ready to walk away from not only the worksite, but their chosen professional field.  

The Enmeshment Stage: If this same worker remains, they move into “enmeshment,” a point in their career where they may be held in high regard by their coworkers, but on the inside, the worker feels like another cog-in-the-wheel, unhappy, and trapped–stuck in an unfulfilling role that leaves them dissatisfied.

“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed.”–Sam Keen

Finally sensing the danger, the squirrel runs away from the work site.

Unfortunately, management, administration, and/or owners can often be tone-deaf to their workers’ heightened levels of stress.  In fact, according to research, the self-help industry and employers appear to blame the workers. Therefore, many workers indeed accept the blame without question, and those workers who do express concerns to management, are often rebuffed with off-hand comments or insincere promises, such as:

“Working long hours never hurt anyone. I like to work long hours.”  

“I still find time to do x, y, or z, with all the demands I have.” 

“It’s only for the short-term, and you’re so good at what you do.” 

Other management teams will offer token trinkets, swag, and so called “social” events/meals–with the expectation that workers don’t break to enjoy the event or meal, but either grab-and-go-back-to-work or remain longer at the work site with co-workers.  Some businesses hold annual health or wellness meetings in which employees are instructed to regularly incorporate self-care practices, such as deep breathing, yoga, exercise, or take fresh air breaks, but in practice, the business maintains its habits of scheduling back-to-back meetings, emailing their workers late into the evening or throughout their weekend, and/or remains committed to the expectation that workers pick up an extra shift or assume an addition role with little to no opportunity for those self-care breaks, much less compensation.  In fact, the culture of many work-sites seem to have an unspoken creed that working longer hours with an increased load and no breaks is often seen as a badge of honor and an esteemed level of productivity. 

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“Even the loveliest shoulders can bear but so much.”–Jill Alexander Essbaum

Worker burnout is, as one researcher writes, a “canary in the coalmine”  If the canary cannot breathe, it is not the canary’s fault but the coalmine, and so it is with burnout.  While there are some actions within the workers control, such as “setting boundaries” to the degree possible, attempting to get adequate rest, nutrition, and/or engaging in enjoyable activities outside of work–these practices can only go so far.  The less input/control workers have for their length of work hours, the type of activities in which they must engage, and little sense of fairness, the more likely burnout will continue. 

As I see it, this brave new work environment requires creative solutions. Enticing job fairs with their flashy flyers, free food, and dressed-up off-site location are merely bowls under the roof of a leaky attic–the leaking holes still remain within the structure, slowly eating away at the stability of the framework–but do not address the real issue.  

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Reflecting back to the squirrels, researchers know that squirrels are most active early in the day as they scatter collections of food in a variety of spots to stave off hunger during more meager times of the year. However, these active periods are also filled with moments of free-spirited play.  While young squirrels play the most, adult squirrels daily engage in some form of play, be it solitary or interactive.  As the day progresses, squirrels begin to wind down and spend up to 60% of their time sleeping. 

It is not unusual, at the end of my workday, to find several squirrels with their lively chitterings, dipping and diving with one another in a rambunctious game of chase.  Their high spirited antics never fail to make me smile in the slant of the evening sun. If I observe long enough, they take breaks here and there to gather food, dart away to some unseen cache, and quickly zip back for more frolicsome play.  I can’t help but wonder if the workplace could learn a lesson or two about what makes a healthy and productive work environment from our fellow squirrels.

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