Burnout is a big deal these days. Whether it’s the seemingly constant change, unreasonable expectations, the anxiety of living in a global pandemic, or simply not having the resources (whether it’s social, physical, emotional, or financial) to deal with everything, burnout has taken shape in some form or fashion over the last year and more.
Studies estimate that burnout has increased between 48% and 64% over the course of the pandemic. And in a much less scientific poll, when I polled my own LinkedIn network, I found that 96% of people reported feeling burnt out at some point over the past six months. It’s likely few of us have the same energy levels as we did before 2020.
Typical tips for fighting burnout often include taking a break, asking for help, and spending time with friends and family; however, leaders and organizations can also mitigate burnout by keeping tabs on energy levels and ensuring sufficient resources are provided. There is, however, an innovative method for fighting burnout that research is finding to be quite effective: Trying to forgive.
Why forgiveness matters
Burnout is about losing your mental and emotional energy. When you run out of the energy needed to overcome daily challenges, you feel as if you are unable to make positive improvements in your situation, and you become skeptical and cynical that things will ever change, you are burnt out. To prevent burnout, you have to minimize unnecessary or wasteful uses of your mental and emotional energy. Forgiveness is one way to do this. And it has been linked to lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety, and of course, burnout.
It may sometimes be easier in the short run to not forgive, but in the long run, it saves your energy. Think of it like this. When you do not forgive—when you hold onto resentment or frustration, focused on someone else or yourself—you are burning mental and emotional “gas.”
Tips for using forgiveness as a burnout cure
Start by forgiving yourself. Research suggests that, when it comes to fighting burnout, being able to forgive yourself may be even more important than forgiving others. After all, you have a front-row seat to your own failings, so there’s more to waste energy over when you cannot forgive yourself. Observe and label the specific things for which you may need to forgive yourself. Pause whenever you start beating yourself up with negative generalities (those phrases that start with “I always . . . ,” “I never . . . ,” and “I’m such a . . . “). Generalities exacerbate burnout feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. It’s much easier to forgive yourself when you can identify the specific thing you are choosing to let go of.
From there, try to lead with forgiveness. Bad leadership has an outsize effect on burnout—increasing burnout by as much as 230%. If you are creating an unforgiving environment where failure is unacceptable and mistakes are heavily punished, you are setting your people up to burn out. Instead, foster creativity, collaboration, and cohesion in your teams by consistently modeling forgiveness. Make it clear to others that it is safe to make mistakes, provided they learn from them.
Focus on solutions, when embracing forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t always easy, and it is easier for some than others. If “forgiveness” sounds like an obligation that would be draining in itself, you may want to think about creating a few mitigation techniques to manage problems before they arise. So, identify where mistakes are made most frequently and institute preventative checkpoints. After all, the fewer mistakes there are, the less you will have to forgive.
Also, forgive selfishly. If forgiving others sounds like a burden, try thinking of it as a way to stay in control of your relationships, for you. This isn’t about having a death grip on every circumstance in life, but rather preventing situations from spiraling out of control. Grudge-holding begets grudge-holding. Vengeance begets more vengeance. Even if your forgiveness doesn’t completely rectify the situation, it will prevent you from wasting more emotional energy reacting to something you cannot control.
Finally, practice empathy. Sometimes forgiving is harder than other times, especially when others’ bad behavior seems ridiculous or malicious. Counter this by remembering that we all fall victim to the fundamental attribution error, or the mistaken thinking that others fail because of who they are, whereas we fail because of our circumstances. Put differently, it is natural to think to ourselves, “I would have never done that.” Instead, think about what would have made you do whatever it is you are frustrated about, and you will find it much easier to forgive.
Forgiveness can empower individuals to take back some of their mental and emotional energy and mitigate the burnout we are all feeling. If you are a team or organizational leader, I’d like to leave you with one caveat and an exhortation.
Remember, forgiveness is not a magic elixir
Don’t weaponize forgiveness by challenging people (“Every person on this team must be more forgiving.”) while you continue to induce burnout through unsupportive and overly demanding leadership. Assess your role in the burnout process, then be proactive in providing support and resources for preventing burnout (and reversing it when it does occur).
Dr. Christopher Coultas is the vice president of product innovation and a senior leadership consultant at Leadership Worth Following. Coultas has coached hundreds of leaders and dozens of teams on how to leverage enhanced self-awareness for optimal leadership impact. His forthcoming book, Driven Not Drained: Discover Your Path to Career Happiness, Effectiveness, and Influence, is a candid, engaging, and comprehensive look at both the science and practical application behind human behavior.