Burnout and Impostor Syndrome for 7 Out of 10 Knowledge Workers

A 2022 study by work management platform Asana found that 70% of the more than 10,000 knowledge workers it surveyed across seven countries had experienced burnout or imposter syndrome in the past year.”

Blimey, that strikes me as a super big deal, right? Crisis-level-big-deal I would say! 

How are we this blasé about it?!? I’ll tell you how - we’re all kinda thinking that even if we were to recognise the mental discomfort which may make us look “weak” then it ought to be ignorable. That really, even if we are burnt or fearful, we ought to still function just fine. Us and all of those around us. 

It’s a horrendous fallacy but a justifiable one. After all, it’s not like we were ever asked how we felt before and surely these things are not unique just more widely spread and enterprises everywhere have been forever full of micro personal dramas and still operated as usual. Never before at this scale though.

Of the stats above, I wonder how many of those workers have just plain cape fatigue. How many were Agile Superheroes and then grew weary and tired and beaten? How many tried to bring in a new and cool piece of tech, debate or consideration around the process and were made to leave it? How many have had to be flexible and value their resistance while desperately trying to learn fast enough to catch up? How many are having any ounce of passion or initiative strangled by command and control? How many are ill-equipped to witness rotten and toxic cultural environments in tech-driven contexts where it used to be all about the 1s and 0s but it now turned into a whole other set of demands and it eventually weighs them down? I expect it’s a very high number. 

We spoke about this before but tech workers, in particular those working with agility, have had to apply so much cognitive power - both towards problem-solving and towards navigating relationships and towards ignoring organisational ailments enough to retain their focus on purpose- that they are likely even more tired than those who haven’t had to do any of it. 

I remain staunchly of the opinion that we are facing an enormous tsunami of the “second coming of the great resignation” specifically in the tech industry that will be devastating. And yet, the only ones genuinely worried and showing any type of urgency in understanding how this looming talent crisis can be avoided are techies themselves and everyone else in the organisation, who seems content to insist the emperor of how disgruntled, weary and fed up people are, is not butt naked. Starting with HR -who still dances like it’s 2002- and ending with the top leadership - who wishes it were 2032 and they could have retired to Florida already-. 

Are they genuinely ignorant of the danger of not caring for their people or are they blissfully unaware of what is really going on? Who knows… What matters is that fixing this large looming HumanDebt we are creating with the lack of care towards the suffering 70% is captured into no one’s KPI. I challenge anyone reading this to say they have it as a goal anywhere. Or even have heard of anyone having it? If “Better our people’s well-being, reverse burnout, eliminate fear, democratise the regular human work on emotions and behaviours” is not a goal on every exec’s variable bonus structure where is it? Do they have an appointed “Chief Burnout and Fear Prevention and Reparations Officer”? Who will see to it that this changes?

The fact that our people are not well and that they can not be high performing while they’re not well is not ignorable. It is an emergency. That they repair. That they heal. That they feel better. That they are genuinely and passionately engaged with the work and each other. That they take care of themselves and each other. That they do the human work.

And again yes, The fact that we would even have to spell this out in this day and age is absolute insanity. It is genuine incompetence and negligence to ignore 70% of people being unwell and hope they magically fix themselves with no effort. 

What will eventually happen once we all just drag ourselves through operational-only tasks devoid of creativity, goodwill and joy? Our ability to make things will slow down and eventually come to a halt. How could it not? In a sense it is happening already, reports show that the pace of innovation in technology overall has slowed down considerably and we only need to look around to acknowledge that pieces of tech that were nearly within grasp a few years ago are nowhere near finished from wearables to AI applications and while that is blamed on big tech monopolies and the pandemic itself it really is largely about the 70% if we’re honest. 

In your team of direct reports, if you knew 7 out of 10 people are having a terrible time would you be thinking you can still deliver on any of the things you need to do and simply ignore the fact? Of course not. It would be a priority to make them feel well again. Find out what caused it, ensure they have the support and strategies they need, and give them time, coaching, tools and empathy. Of course, you would. Because you can’t succeed with 3 people and because you care. And because you know these things don’t “take care of themselves” and winning can only return once you’ve seen these people be better. 

Make no mistake about it - teams of burnout individuals who impression manage to hide their impostor syndrome and can’t be open and authentic with low psychological safety, low EQ and no support or habit of doing regular human work will never be good enough to achieve high technology goals. 

Teams and individuals who live with extreme fatigue, anxiety, mental fog, depression, dread and fear will never be innovative or creative. 

Teams and individuals who spend no time on their wellbeing will never step out of the 70%. 

This will not fix itself. Teams and individuals will do the fixing once they start understanding their emotions and behaviours but they first need help. The help to get started and the help to get stuck into the work and embed it in the day-to-day. So make the “empower and reward people for the human work” a strategic goal today on every KPI sheet or strategic goals list, bring along HR, Ops, Finance and whoever else should have already been scratching their heads to solve for lowering the 70% but don’t, and make it the urgent priority it deserves to be. 

Related: It’s High Time We Reward Our People for the Human Work