Are You Morally Burnt Out?

I'm always fascinated by the latest workplace trends and how someone, somewhere coins a phrase that we all talk about for a month or two, before it disappears.

For example, who remembers quiet quitting.

However, I recently encountered a phenomenon that has been sitting in the background for many years, and is only growing now that we have a more conscious generation of employees entering the workforce.

It's called moral burnout, and I encountered it myself a while back. I joined an employer who was, it turns out, rather low on scruples. And when I say low on scruples, we're talking call up grannies and ask them to part with their grandchildrens' inheritance low. 

I'm not virtue signalling here when I say that I'm not keen on persuading grannies to part with their grandchildrens' inheritance. I think many of you reading will share the same ick feeling that I had when I learned of the salesperson's techniques.

The more I learned of their practices, the more I felt that their values and my values weren't just misaligned, they were on other planets. And yet there were people there who were very much in line with those values, who happily carried on either in wilful ignorance of the sales practices, or in total agreement.

Worse, they were struggling to live with themselves, causing themselves moral burnout in the process because they had submitted to the employer's working practices even though they go against their own values.

Understanding why moral burnout happens

So I've given you a rather extreme example, and it's perhaps important to stress that moral burnout is different from your 'traditional' burnout where employees are burning both ends of the candle or are trying to manage workplace stress.

Moral burnout is a different concept where the values of an organisation fall out of line with those of the employee, and the employee - as a result - backs away from the business.

The process can occur over a longer period. The employee can at first feel a cognitive or emotional response to something that happens in the workplace. It may be poor leadership, bullying or - in my case - an ethical void. It may even extend to a lack of care over the environment or public health - a manager revealing how little they care about plastic waste, for instance, could be a starting point to moral burnout.

Let's put this in an extremely - and extreme - simple context. A Just Stop Oil activist joins a marketing agency, only to discover that the owner of the business has just won a contract with BP. Both parties need the money - one for their mortgage, the other to pay salaries. And yet in signing BP for the agency, the agency owner has alienated at the very least one employee, maybe more.

It's a really extreme case of value misalignment.

Get Your Values In Line

We're very good at building teams based on their skills or their competencies. We're rightly very keen to upskill them and update them on things they need to know for their work.

But are we good at building teams who have the right values? Or even on updating & communicating the company's values so that they're in line with the modern workforce?

Moral burnout is the result of a continued series of events where the employee perceives the employer or their colleagues to be acting in ways that they feel are morally wrong. And yet others may not perceive those actions that way.

Unethical practices cause moral burnout, but so do behaviours that can be perceived as unethical. If business leaders don't listen to employees - let's say through anonymous employee surveys, that kind of thing - then none of these behaviours will ever change. And the younger members of our workforce will simply walk - and let's be honest about this, they do. If they feel any sign of moral burnout, they're gone.

And soon, they'll be at managerial level.

So understand the values of your people, and be led from the bottom up. Be aware of unethical practices and behaviours, and if you very much insist on carrying through with them, stick to hiring unethical people. At the very least, they'll stick around.

Published on May 31, 2023 by Gareth Cartman