I find most discussions about our collective exhaustion to be themselves terribly exhausting. But "The Burnout Epidemic" surprised me.

Burnout is the often-used term to describe how many of us are feeling right now. In books, news reports, articles, and in conversation, it is frequently coupled with the words overstretched, exhausted, uncertain, breaking point, and understaffed. Burnout is typically described as something that is happening to us because of the unprecedented (another overused word!) situation in which we find ourselves over twenty months into the pandemic. Burnout seems inevitable and unavoidable.

I find most discussions about our collective exhaustion to be themselves terribly exhausting.  They explain why we often feel so overwhelmed, but they do not leave me feeling empowered to do much more than suffer alongside everyone else. So, when Vennie Gore suggested that I read Jennifer Moss’s new book, The Burnout Epidemic, I was skeptical that it was worth my time. Frankly, I don’t have the energy to wallow in long descriptions of how and why we are all so burned out.

But The Burnout Epidemic surprised me.

Moss explains that burnout is characterized by three things:  feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance or negative feelings about one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. That all sounds familiar to me. She also draws from academic research to describe the causes of burnout as workload, perceived lack of control, lack of reward or recognition, poor relationships, unfairness, and values mismatch. Again, that seemed about right to me. Nothing surprising so far.

What surprised me about The Burnout Epidemic was how Moss focused on the institutions (or companies) that are causing the characteristics associated with burnout rather than on the employees who are being impacted by it. In doing so, she called for empathetic leadership that “requires stepping outside of our own needs, assessing, and removing bias and privilege, actively listening to our people, and then taking action.” If we do this, she asserts, “we can develop a shared approach to solving a completely solvable problem.”

For Moss, occasional kind words while one is being asked to undertake impossible tasks (“verbal tipping,” as I’ve heard it called) or instructions to take a day off (only to face a mountain of work when you return) are band-aid approaches that gloss over the problem and actually make burnout even worse. Instead, she calls for people to become “empathic leaders” by meeting people where they are and building institutions that serve other people’s needs.

Moss’s approach reminded me so much of our own efforts to make MSU a student success institution. Instead of attempting to merely armor students to better survive an institution that is not designed to serve their needs, MSU’s student success agenda requires us to redesign the university to provide an inclusive, equitable curriculum and environment with the academic, social, wellness and financial support that enables all students to learn, thrive, persist, graduate and succeed after graduation. 

Student success is also a “completely solvable problem.” Focusing our work on reshaping the institution around empathetic leadership – empathetic toward both our students and one another – requires us to interrogate every aspect of our work and our students’ experience to ensure that it serves peoples’ needs. Every policy, procedure, and practice should exist to support students to learn, thrive, and graduate.

Moss concludes her book by encouraging readers to “take care of yourself, too.”  She discusses the beneficial “upstream impacts” that are accrued to leaders and institutions that redesign their work around empathetic leadership. That is, by increasing well-being and happiness in the name of reducing burnout, leaders will better achieve their (and their organizations’) goals. Likewise, as MSU becomes an even better student success institution, makes itself even more accessible, and closes opportunity gaps among its students, the many other functions associated with the university will flourish.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email largent@msu.edu.

Mark Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.