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Stuart White 12-01-2023 9:00 AM

A friend of mine revealed that he has been off from work for the past 4 months because of burnout - the state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. He works as a senior manager for a global IT company which develops video games. To hear his account of his journey which he described as a slow build-up to an explosion was fascinating. Unlike an erupting volcano however where pressure builds up until gases escape violently and explode, his was an implosion of loss and defeat. What emerged was not an energy like anger or rage but its antithesis - lethargy, hopelessness, and depression.

After 4 months of therapy (which is still ongoing) there is clarity, insight, and acceptance. Gone is the ‘what the hell just happened here’, ‘deer in the headlights’ bewilderment persona typical of senior executives or high-flyers who experience burnout. Another burnout survivor told me recently that one of the biggest things he had to come to terms with was the distorted thought ‘stress and burnout don’t happen to people like me’ which in this instance I interpreted to mean as a highly successful, A-type-personality male holding a senior position an international blue-chip company in the IT sector, doesn’t experience emotional exhaustion.

Early in our chat my mind incorrectly assumed that this was a case of work pressure, delivery and all the stuff normally associated with IT development and the stress inherent in a constantly changing and evolving industry.  Although we typically think of stress as too much work it is in effect any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain. Video games are becoming competitors to TV and streaming video services, disrupting the disrupters if you will. Previously he had shared with me that his team can work for years on developing a game only to find the project torpedoed because it is “beaten” by the development of a better game developed clandestinely in another division of the SAME COMPANY. This specific strategy is common in the IT/Tech industry. It is based on a belief that internal competition is healthy for innovation and on the fear that they will be replaced in the same way they unseated other companies to get where they are now.  While the principle may have merit, in this instance that teams within the company didn’t share information, cooperate or synergise, it resulted in de-motivation in a ‘battle it out, winner takes all’ kind of environment. And you know how losers feel!

What he describes as particularly soul-destroying was that oftentimes they worked on projects where things were not working out – and everyone knew it. Despite this, management above would tell them to carry on – and they would have to cascade the lie down the organisation. “Have you any idea” he mused “how disheartening it is to work on stuff, giving it blood, sweat and tears when you know it’s crap or to be sabotaged by the guys doing the SAME thing in another company within the group? Why couldn’t we just work together or even pull the plug earlier? It’s all messed-up”, he said.

The culture of dishonesty sounds very similar to what happened at Theranos, the Silicon Valley start-up, which purported to be going to revolutionize medicine with its blood-testing technology.  Theranos managed to raise more than $700 million through an elaborate, years-long series of lies and exaggerations about the company’s business, finances, and technology. 

The lies were only the tip of the iceberg at my friend’s company. The HR department is guilty of ignoring the complaints about those lies and toxic work environment. Repeated trips to HR highlight the complacency of management – and how the very department that should have sounded the alarm instead came across as co-conspirators. The company clearly developed combative relationships as opposed to collaborative ones and workers felt that what they did didn’t matter (especially when 4 years’ worth of work is discarded - it’s not unusual for these projects to be around several hundred million euros, a waste of both money and manpower).

He is the 5th manager in the past year to become a casualty of burnout. These managers he assures me are talented, difficult to replace and won’t struggle to find new employment, although like him they will be careful to investigate the wellbeing practises of potential new employers. Going forward, he says he will be looking for an organisation which cares about its employees and not in a woolly, woke or whimsical way but on their approach to ensuring they offer a healthy workplace.

“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities,” said USA’s Surgeon General, who last year produced a framework for Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Workplace.  The framework put forward has been developed to help companies be able to address (and understand) factors that affect mental health. In the report five essentials for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being are listed to help organizations develop, institutionalize, and update policies, processes, and practices that best support the mental health and well-being of all workers. All of  these  appear to be missing in my friend’s organisation:
Protection from Harm: Creating the conditions for physical and psychological safety is a critical foundation for ensuring mental health and well-being in the workplace. In order to promote practices that better assure protection from harm, workplaces can:
Connection and Community: Fostering positive social interaction and relationships in the workplace supports worker well-being. To promote practices that better assure connection and community, workplaces can:
Work-Life Harmony: Professional and personal roles can create work and non-work conflicts. In order to promote practices that better assure work-life harmony, workplaces can:
Mattering at Work:  People want to know that they matter to those around them, as does their work.  Knowing you are appreciated has been shown to lower stress, while feeling like you do not can increase the risk for depression.  In order to better assure a culture of mattering at work, workplaces can:
Opportunities for Growth: When organizations create more opportunities for workers to accomplish goals based on their skills and growth, workers become more optimistic about their abilities and more enthusiastic about contributing to the organization. 

A company at war with itself, such as the one my friend is working at, runs the very real risk of cannibalising itself, devouring its sums and parts and subsuming its talent.  Corporation and cooperation differ by a single letter but the former cannot function as a whole without the latter.  Much like those Doomsday predictions of how the world will end, they will finish not with a bang but with a whimper.  Just ask Elizabeth Holmes, former fêted femme fatale and CEO of Theranos, now serving an 11-year jail sentence for her corporate malpractices.  That’s a burnout on a whole different level.


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