Burnout crisis forces new look at workplace health
• Stress costs lives and hits business, so why do workers not ask for help?
I BLAME MYSELF AND WONDER WHAT I LACKED AS A WIFE TO NOT HELP HIM. HE WAS SO HAPPY UNTIL HE FELT THAT PRESSURE
Gabe MacConaill was working on a life-defining case. The junior partner at global law firm Sidley Austin was put on Mattress Firm’s bankruptcy. It was complex, taking 41 subsidiaries down.
In the months leading to the bankruptcy filing people noticed MacConaill, 28, isolate himself. He closed his office door more often. His friends rarely saw him. He feared he lacked experience and would be sued for malpractice. His sleep was upset. He stopped laughing and going to gym. When wife Joanna Litt suggested he see a therapist he said he didn’t have time. After the filing, he said.
MacConaill began to break down. He feared his body was failing but that if his bosses saw weakness, it would end his career. After a heart-attack scare, he powered on, gathering energy to fly to Delaware and file the case. Litt thought they had made it. But a week later, MacConaill died by suicide in the parking lot of his law firm.
“The slightest thing could have saved my husband,” Litt said at their Los Angeles home, now for sale. Litt can’t imagine living there without MacConaill.
She published a letter in American Lawyer magazine called “Big law killed my husband”. Litt believes it holds lessons for leaders, legislators and companies.
Suicide’s causes are complex, but experts say the 21st-century workplace can aggravate problems leading to it, such as overwork, burnout and
depression. Litt says MacConaill lacked coping mechanisms and had a few drinking binges. There was instability in his mother’s family, but she had not noticed it in him. Litt spoke of “a high-pressure job and a culture where it’s shameful to ask for help, shameful to be vulnerable, and shameful not to be perfect.”
Experts in workplace psychology agree that burnout is a growing public health crisis.
When Houston law firm associate Ryan Keith Wallace, 27, died by suicide after a highly stressful day his death shocked those who knew him.
“I blame myself and wonder what I lacked as a wife to not help him,” says widow, Kyrie Cameron. “He was so happy until he felt that pressure. It seemed work was the trigger.”
Cameron, also a lawyer, says her husband’s perfectionism and fear of failure led him to feel he had no other way out. “Our profession has lost perspective,” she says. “We think that success means being the highest-billing, highest-earning, most productive person at the expense of taking care of ourselves. We can’t show vulnerability, reach out for help.”
All fields, not only law, finance and consulting, have intense, demanding workplace cultures. One doctor dies by suicide daily in the US. Anxiety, stress and depression account for 44% of work-related illhealth cases in Britain, and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health, says the government’s health and safety executive.
As companies move to close the gender pay gap and end sexual harassment, mental wellbeing is often overlooked. Workplace mental health specialist Donna Hardaker says: “There is a deeply entrenched cultural idea that workplaces are fine; it’s the employees who are the problem. But employers have a social responsibility to not be harming the people who are working within their walls.”
It is estimated 615-million people suffer from depression globally. A World Health Organisation study recently found this costs about $1-trillion a year in lost productivity. Firms that do not support employees have higher turnover and health-care costs and lower productivity, says the American Psychological Association. They also face significant legal risks.
Experts blame overwork. Employees must be available 24/7 to answer e-mails and respond to demanding clients. In his book Dying for a
Paycheck, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says this crisis is getting worse amid stagnating pay and rising reliance on the gig economy. “We are on a path that is unsustainable,” he says.
“The Center for Disease Control tells you chronic illness is 86% of the $2.7-trillion US health-care spend. Many come from stress-related behaviours. To solve the health-care cost crisis, a piece of that has to go through the workplace.”
Studies show burnout typifies employees who care most about their work and are often the best employees. They “are so committed they don’t know when to stop”, says Mike Thompson, National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions CEO and mental-health advocate. In workplaces globally, senior managers are often unreceptive, or even hostile, to talk of mental health. Financial Times survey respondents who told managers their issues felt they were later discriminated against or given less meaningful work.
Canada is the first country with a national standard for workplace psychological health. Overseen by the governmentfunded Mental Health Commission, it gives a step-bystep methodology for building a psychologically healthy workplace — from finding a senior leader to champion the cause, to measuring the outcomes of new initiatives.
Donna Hardaker, who is working to introduce the approach in California, says issues must be addressed. This is not a one-off. We can’t just have one workshop and say, ‘OK, we’re good on this.’”
Companies worldwide have tried radical remedies. Some have on-site therapists. A New Zealand insurer tested a 32hour work week and reported lower stress and higher staff engagement. In Germany, Volkswagen set its internal servers to not route e-mail to staff from 6.15pm to 7am.
Under France’s “right to disconnect” law, if an employee is not reachable by smartphone outside work hours, it cannot be considered misconduct. But most experts say there is a long way to go.