Marketing Agency

It’s not burnout. It’s moral injury

It's not burnout. It's moral injury
Written by publishing team

Written by Ludmila in Braslova 8 minutes Read

The staff—doctors, fast food workers, teachers, hotel staff—are resignation In unprecedented numbers, often in distress. managers In confusion on how to respond. Attempts to address employee dissatisfaction and burnout through rewards, vigilance, and overtime do not seem to work well; Employees continue to quit, sometimes with anger and SignificantlyPosting a set of grievances on social media.

But what if the problem we usually call “burnout” isn’t just fatigue? What if the “usual suspects” – depression or anxiety – aren’t either? What if it is something that may look the same, but has a different cause and, if handled incorrectly, can make people feel getting worse?

Adequate handling of an epidemic of employee anxiety and resignation requires properly identifying its causes and using accurate terminology to describe it. And while burnout is the most common explanation for employee distress, in many cases, the problem may be less well-known, but more subtle: moral damage. Preliminary data from my ongoing research indicates that, conservatively, the experience of at least 25% of those feeling overwhelmed can be explained by moral harm.

contemplate a story Someone we will contact Henry. Henry joined a well-known non-profit organization to use his accounting talents in the service of a social cause that he strongly supported. But he discovered the terrible mishandling of the donations – and was asked to cover them up. The embezzlement’s discovery was bad enough, but Henry now faces a dilemma: whistle the individuals involved and risk a backlash against the entire cause he believed in, or remain silent, keeping the face of cause, but become a party to a problem. Henry found himself struggling to sleep at night and to control his emotions during the day, including anger at the organization’s management for tarnishing cause and the shame of his losing situation. In addition, his health problems that were under control came back with a vengeance.

In another example, “Kim” became an HR professional because she cared about people. At first, working in a promising marketing agency was a dream come true. Over time though, I’ve noticed a high turnover, and in surveys, many complained of being “kicked out” or “bullied” once they got over the age of 35 or so. The recruiter who brought in an alternative talent confirmed her suspicions – there was an unwritten rule to only consider resumes for those in their mid-twenties. Kim’s supervisor made it clear that if she wanted to keep her job, she would support the “energy” of the company. Kim was brought up to respect her elders, and she was terrified. What would she tell her family when they asked, “How’s it going?” At the next gathering? Can she even confront her family while working for an elderly company?

Definition of moral damage

The original understanding of moral damage, similar to PTSD, comes from research in military forces. Understanding this origin also helps to understand the distinction between these syndromes. Whereas PTSD may be due to the threat to one death rateMoral damage is caused by the threat to the individual Moral, such as harming a child or destroying a school or place of worship. Jonathan Shay, who coined the term while working with the military ancient warriorHe also stressed the role of betrayal by leadership in high-risk situations in developing moral damage.

Building on previous research and extending the concept of moral damage to a range of occupations, I propose that it is part of a broader classification of stress reactions in the workplace. BrieflyPTSD predominantly affects feelings of security, moral damage predominantly affects feelings of confidence and/or self-esteem, and burnout affects an individual’s sense of involvement and effectiveness. While these may occur and overlap, the causes and effects are sufficiently different and require different interventions.

The main focus of non-military research on moral harm has been on health care workers. Nurses and doctors are heartbroken at not being able to provide the care they swear to provide because of global pandemicAnd severe shortage of personnel, bureaucratic bureaucracy, And Basic organizational cultures for profit before the patient. Approximately one in five health care workers Left their jobs since the pandemic began. However, the widespread prevalence of moral harm in health care was well documented before this March 2020, attributable to methodological problems that emphasized efficiency and financial metrics at the expense of physician/patient communication, trust and the patient in general. Care.

similarly, educated Currently facing the deadly effects of the pandemic and struggling with adequate resources to meet the needs of students. However, even before the epidemic, professionals from kindergarten through twelfth grade were mentioned Moral damage levels are similar to those of veterans, with teachers Feeling upset when forced to implement poorly researched and potentially harmful disciplinary approaches and practices.

Moral damage was also found in journalists Covering the refugee crisis in Europe and civilians in general population.

In the most general form, and applicable to occupations, workplace moral damage is a trauma response to witnessing or participating in workplace behaviors that conflict with an individual’s moral beliefs in high-risk situations with the potential for physical, psychological, social, or economic harm to others. Focusing on high-risk, high-risk situations allows the concept to be kept serious.

Adverse events may fall into three categories:

  1. The transgressions of others (for example, managers, co-workers, or clients);
  2. Abuses committed by individuals;
  3. betrayalFeeling that managers, colleagues, or policy makers have betrayed professional values, employees, clients/clients/students/patients.

Violating deeply held values ​​can destabilize the very essence of one’s identity and self-concept. Moral injury may lead to a range of emotions, such as guilt, shame, anger, sadness, anxiety, and disgust. It also often leads to disappointment in people, especially in people with authority and organizations (and thus quitting work in favor of self-employment). Hate, existential, and spiritual crises are also common. Some individuals may develop physical illness or maladaptive behavior (drug abuse, self-isolation).

The moral damage framework can be applied across a wide range of professions. In Henry’s case, his managers commit financial excess while also betraying the cause and those the organization is supposed to serve. To make matters worse, he is expected to commit the same abuses. In Kim’s case, the company systematically practices ageism, and is pressured to betray its values ​​by supporting the regime.

Prevention is the best medicine. modify be second best

Inattention to moral damage and misinterpreting it as “exhaustion” leads to ineffective ways of tackling the problem. As many reduce “fatigue” to individual response to demands beyond resources, person-centered “burnout interventions” suggest “developing resilience” via health and training applications, “managing stress” via mindfulness and yoga or, in the best case scenario, time is up. . However, yoga will not help a doctor who is prevented by insurance regulations from prescribing a life-saving treatment or instructed by a teacher to use it Isolation and restraint On crying children. Likewise, a wellness application will not help a recruiter who has been instructed to disregard applicants with “great experience” or with non-Anglo names. If anything, these individual-centered “solutions” to systemic problems only add insult to injury.

Negative reactions to morally harmful situations are not the result of an employee’s “lack of flexibility.” These are normal reactions to systematic ethical violations – and unless these violations are corrected, entire organizations and industries will continue to lose talent and public trust. Repairing faulty systems to prevent further damage should be the focus of the intervention, along with support for injured – but not “defective” – individuals.

The best way to prevent moral damage is to ensure that regulatory and ethical processes are transparent. Suggest that organizations:

  1. Track moral damage along with employee satisfaction, burnout, engagement, and other key indicators of organizational health. Careful analysis of this data (when ethically and statistically feasible, by units) should guide actions to support employee well-being, as well as organizational ethics.
  2. Embrace Shock organizational practices.
  3. Provide multiple ways in which employees can express their concerns effectively and in an environment of psychological safety, and ensure transparent follow-up of ethical concerns.
  4. Make ethical considerations an essential component of recruitment, promotion, and leadership training.

When moral damage occurs, restoring trust between organizations, employees, organizations and the community requires unambiguous and radical systemic transparency.

  1. Organizations may need to make adjustments to the community, and transparently submit and implement detailed plans to address past ethical violations.
  2. Whenever possible, allowing employees who have experienced moral harm to actively participate in the correctional process will also help these individuals rebuild their sense of self-esteem.
  3. Recovering from emotional damage is a complex matter. In addition to restoring justice, individuals are likely to need psychological and spiritual support to make meaning and, where possible, facilitate growth after trauma.

Unfortunately, not all employees who have suffered moral damage will see justice restored in the same organizations where the injury occurred. They may face harmful situations in multiple institutions. However, these individuals are not doomed to failure.

Very early in my career, I had Henry’s experience spotting a range of misconduct in a charitable organization. Despite the reports, the problems were never dealt with – in fact, honest leaders were fired, and the bossy embezzler was given more power. For the sake of self-preservation, I learned to separate a Organization caused by the sins of individuals. Not getting involved in unethical behavior allowed me to feel that I could still contribute to the cause and serve people directly despite problematic leadership. However, when I left, I was intent on making my next job “just a job,” without the emotional and values-based investment and risk of being broke. Being morally injured and continuing to work is a recipe for pain, like walking on a broken leg.

But humans in general are not interested in separation. We are committed to finding meaning in what we do, and within a few years, I’ve given up the “just a job” mentality. Through other cycles of trust, betrayal, and injury, I’ve come up with a personal formula to focus on the immediate impact I am having even if organizations do imperfectly, while doing everything in my power to improve those organizations as an industrial-organizational psychologist. People and organizations are flawed, but we can commit to a process of daily improvement – getting better and doing better.

As the workplace experience a “Humanity Revolution” It is critical to understand the role of moral damage in the employee experience and its impact on employee retention, organizational reputation, and other outcomes. Honest and ethical organizations benefit everyone, and may just be a response to a great quit—especially when it’s actually a huge disappointment.


Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, a professor and director Graduate Programs in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California. She is an advocate for fairness and well-being at work and uses her vast experience with global, cultural, and neurodiversity to create systemic inclusion.

Author’s note: Interested individuals or organizations can participate in the next phase of my research project on moral damage and disappointment in the workplace. Participation here. You can also use this form To provide Secret comments on this article.


About the author

publishing team