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Moral stress in the workplace arises when a person observes, learns about, or experiences an event that challenges their moral values and convictions, either towards themselves or their co-workers. When these circumstances are not addressed in a timely and appropriate manner by the organisation, they add to the stress. Over a period of time, this leads to moral injuries and eventually moral burnout.

Moral burnout can have both mental and physical health issues that can impede an employee’s ability to do their job effectively. While the causes of moral burnout are still being studied, it is obvious that moral injuries, or injuries to our sense of morality, can result in moral fatigue.

Read on to find out the definition of moral burnout, its causes and some techniques to recover.

Defining Moral Burnout

According to research from the University of Sheffield, Affinity Health, and burnout prevention company Softer Success, ‘moral burnout’ is induced by working in toxic situations, particularly occupations where people experience a sense of injustice.

 

According to one study, moral burnout, which refers to the long-term impact of performing, witnessing, or failing to prevent an action that contradicts your own moral values, and the stress it creates, is causing a more intense sort of burnout in employees across various business sectors. This can lead to feelings of guilt, hopelessness, helplessness and decreased productivity. Moral burnout can lead to career burnout in the long run.

 

The study found some participants’ chose to leave their employment, while others took sabbaticals and professional breaks. Others started their own businesses, while others were off work due to depression or anxiety.

Yellow hazard road sign Moral dilemma ahead
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The Seven Causes of Moral Burnout

Workplace moral injury can arise as a result of a colleague’s transgression or betrayal, wrongful dismissal, or inability to take proper action to remedy the situation or change the organisation’s culture.  If left unchecked, moral injury can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and other emotional problems.

Some of the work experiences that can lead to moral injury are:

  1. Seeing executives or board members receive huge bonuses during layoffs
  2. Leadership styles that are characterized and comprised of humiliation, fear, control, and manipulation
  3. Nepotism
  4. Failure to follow legislation or regulations including organizational policies and procedures.
  5. Misallocation or Misappropriation of funds (i.e. money spent on events and parties instead of a pay rise)
  6. Discrimination
  7. Lack of compassionate support for employees experiencing a medical emergency or personal difficulties.

Individuals begin to experience “moral burnout” when they suffer from moral injury over a long length of time. These injuries lead to the following symptoms that are experienced due to moral burnout;

Symptoms and Effects of Moral Burnout

  • Feeling ashamed or embarrassed to be part of the workplace or associated with the organization
  • Lack of enthusiasm or motivation to go to work.
  • Constantly procrastinating
  • Drop in self-confidence due to feeling fearful or anxious about the consequences of your action.
  • Unable to switch off from work, unwind or relax
  • Having unwanted thoughts about work or worries
  • Thinking of worst-case scenarios
  • Feeling disinterested and disengaged in work/your day-to-day life

In the short run, the inability to switch off after work leads to exhaustion, stress, and irritability. The effects of moral fatigue can be long-term and devastating, leading to serious health problems like depression and anxiety.

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Image representing symptoms of moral burnout

Tips for Recovering

Moral burnout happens and when it does it can have serious consequences on both employers and employees. When employees feel overwhelmed and exhausted by having to continually uphold their moral convictions. It can be harmful to a person’s wellness and well-being. Leading to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and high turnover. If you are experiencing moral burnout, here are some suggestions to help you manage the problem better.

Seek professional help if you are experiencing symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

Cultivate or develop a support network, these could be colleagues within the organisation or from your wider network of individuals.

To help manage the stress invest in learning how to manage stress. You can also develop a daily routine which involves exercise, meditation and mindfulness practices. 

Identify your stressors, this could be as easy as journaling where you record and write down what is going on.

Invest in ongoing  professional development  to learn new skills. These could come useful when you want to change jobs.

Review what this moral stress experience has taught you, and what qualities you expect from your future workplace or job roles.

Conclusion

Moral burnout is a condition that can have serious consequences for your health and well-being. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and tips for recovering from moral fatigue, you can start to rebuild your life.

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FAQ

In the 1990s, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay and colleagues coined the term moral injury based on multiple accounts offered by military/ veteran patients who perceived unfairness as a result of leadership negligence.

The authors describe the state in which people are fatigued from constantly making ethical decisions. It can result in decreased productivity, unethical behaviour, and low workplace morale. To avoid moral burnout, set clear work and personal life boundaries. Plan regular check-ins with co-workers or friends to stay grounded while also engaged. Learn to identify situations and circumstances that lead to stress. Finally, maintain a good balance of personal pursuits, which means you don’t abandon your own wants entirely in order to meet the needs of others.

When you are feeling moral burnout, you are most certainly working hard to maintain and make your own morals heard.

Either because of your or others’ failure to address the matter on moral grounds, you may experience a range of negative feelings such as shame, remorse, or wrath. This means you are struggling with your inner guiding principles that define who you are and what is right and bad. In addition, because of the pressures and stresses of a job or life, you may feel overwhelmed at work. You may find it difficult to find the motivation to perform your daily job or meet deadlines.

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Meghana Millin
Mindfulness teacher & Reiki Master
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