What is moral burnout? Common signs of new type of stress – and how to beat it

Hustle culture and working hard for success is the way of life for many of us – and this can sometimes lead to burnout.

Common signs of burnout include mental exhaustion, disengagement and reduced productivity. However, new research has revealed that people are experiencing a new kind of burnout in 2022.

The study from University of Sheffield, Affinity Health and burnout prevention consultancy Softer Success revealed that moral injury and stress is causing a new intense type of burnout in the workplace, which is more challenging to overcome.

Here’s what you need to know about moral burnout, its signs and how to overcome it.

What is moral burnout?
We’re all hearing about workplace trends like ‘quiet quitting’ and the Great Resignation, where people are leaving work as they are no longer able to keep up or cope the same way they used to.

A new study has revealed a new type of burnout, which might be the reason for increased instances of quitting.

Burnout specialist Cara de Lange, founder and CEO of Softer Success, explained: “Moral burnout involves witnessing or being a victim of things at work that don’t align with your values, beliefs or witnessing acts that you perceive as immoral. This could be bullying, sexism, racism, homophobia or extreme moral issues – anything that goes on in a toxic work environment.

“Additionally, this can be made worse by the constant state of crisis we’re currently living in, like the energy crisis, war, cost of living crisis, rising inflation and an unstable government.”

She added that this type of burnout is more extreme and can cause such emotional distress that “it impacts your mental, emotional, and physical health inside and outside of work”.

What are signs of moral burnout?
Professor Karina Nielsen, chair of Work Psychology at Sheffield University, revealed the following as signs you might be experiencing moral burnout.

  • Feeling ashamed or embarrassed by event that have happened in the workplace
  • Feeling more fatigued
  • Constantly procrastinating
  • Feeling fearful or anxious during the day
  • Unable to switch off from work, unwind or relax
  • Having intrusive thoughts about work or worries
  • Thinking of worst-case scenarios
  • Feeling disinterested and disengaged in work/your day-to-day life.
  • Emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.

How to prevent and overcome moral burnout
When experiencing burnout, people are advised to take time off, learn to say no and set healthy boundaries. However, burnout specialist Cara de Lange explains that holidays are a short-term fix for moral burnout.

She outlines some other ways to prevent or overcome moral burnout.

  • Rewiring your neural pathways – Scientists have found that we can train ourselves to rewire the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts and reactions. Doing this can help us adapt to the ongoing uncertainty in the world. While it can take time, it will ultimately change your brain’s automatic response to a scenario.
  • Positive future planning – Writing out a future script that has a plan on how you navigate the uncertainty can also help. Expressing gratitude, showing and practising empathy for others, and self-compassion are key ways to change your brain’s neural pathways and your brain’s automatic response to things that are a source of your frustration.
  • Set wellbeing goals -Whether it’s a quick five-minute meditation, a walk on your lunch break, a jog after work or making sure you eat a healthy breakfast on weekdays, setting wellbeing goals is a fantastic way to look after both your mental and physical health. Having and sticking to goals can also provide a sense of structure and achievement in difficult times.
  • Finish work on time – While taking time off work is the most common advice to tackle burnout, finishing work on time
  • Although not always possible, it should be the rule, not the exception. If you find yourself working late everyday, this could be a prevailing cause of burnout.
  • Take control of what you can – Often when moral injury is experienced, there is a feeling that we have no control. So it is important to take back control of what you can. We may be dealing with world-wide uncertainty, but what you can do yourself to take control. Tune into your inner wisdom. We need to use our inner genius as well as science to change the way we work. For example, changing the way you think about crises. Instead of sitting in fear, asking yourself what is good about this? What are the positive outcomes? Can this be good for the environment or our wellbeing?