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Well-Being at Work: Between Burnout and Quiet Quitting

Working too much hurts. But challenge and growth, in moderation, are necessary.

Key points

  • Managers and employees struggle with balancing and negotiating the need for performance and the need for well-being.
  • Performance and well-being are not in conflict; well-being includes growth and challenge.
  • Organizations are responsible for creating healthy work environments that do not push individuals to burn out.
  • Stretching and challenging work can help maximize productivity, flow, and well-being.
Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash
Source: Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

The word well-being is increasingly popular in conversations about work. It is important to employees. Organizations are trying to respond; in the last couple of years, well-being has become prominent in job titles. Chief Well-Being Officers and Wellness Officers help prevent and ameliorate employee burnout. Their role is to ensure that managers on all levels understand the importance of supporting employee health.

Ensuring life-work balance and well-being, however, is not an easy job—and it seems to be getting harder. Work pressures are often relentless. Many managers and employees seem to struggle with balancing and negotiating the need for performance and the need for well-being. The trend of quiet quitting is an extreme example. After years of work creep, employees no longer want to align with hustle culture and go above and beyond.

The desire to protect ourselves from the demands of extractive work environments is understandable. But are well-being and performance truly incompatible?

In a healthy workplace, performance and well-being are not in conflict. In fact, there is an element of performance within a scientific definition of well-being. Well-being is often conceptualized as consisting of two aspects:

Hedonia (happiness as pleasure or feel-good) is derived from the Greek word meaning pleasure and is characterized by enjoyment, comfort, satisfaction, or absence of distress.

Eudaimonia or eudemonia (happiness as personal fulfillment or feel-purpose) is the Greek word understood as good spirit, happiness, highest human good, and even virtuous activity. It involves growth, meaning, authenticity, excellence, and ethical achievement.

Eudemonic well-being requires the fulfillment of one’s potential and the development of one’s talents. And that, in turn, calls for stretching and challenging oneself to grow, although this stretching may not always be pleasurable. Contributing to society and growing may call for effort and perseverance, which are not the obvious ways to attain pleasure. Yet, they contribute to total well-being.

One way to avoid the extremes of disengagement in the name of pleasure and overwork in the name of performance is to think of the optimal work as flow.

When we are challenged in a way that is aligned with our abilities, we can become absorbed in the task, maximally creative, and our most productive selves. The state of flow is also highly enjoyable, with eudemonia possibly resulting in hedonia.

Organizational leaders aiming to maximize productivity will benefit from remembering that the key to both organizational productivity goals and to employee well-being is:

  • Aligning what people do with their best talents
  • Ensuring that people are creatively challenged but not exhausted

Such balance and alignment support both organizational performance goals and employee wellbeing. No conflict.

In healthy organizations, individual employees can use self-leadership skills to create personalized methods of stretching themselves to maximize productivity and flow, eudaimonic well-being. However, organizations are responsible for creating healthy work environments that do not push employees into overworking and burnout. Unless the workplace balance is achieved, individuals will keep seeking ways out, or attempting to protect themselves by checking out. The trend toward self-employment may also continue, as individuals seek to use their autonomy to develop the level of challenge that best supports their well-being.

This post also appears in the Best Work for Your Brain newsletter.

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