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Episode 6

When Passion Meets Burnout with Jennifer Moss

In this episode of Leading From The Front, Mathilde is joined by award-winning author and journalist Jennifer Moss, who’s an expert on happiness and wellbeing in the workplace. They talk about why high-performers get burnt out and what they can do to stay mentally and emotionally healthy.

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Mathilde Collin Hi, everyone, I’m Mathilde Collin, co-founder and CEO of Front. Over the years I’ve shared my journey as a leader and a founder, and everything I’ve learned so far has been by talking to people that are more experienced and wiser than me. And this is what I’m doing today. Today, I’m here with Jennifer Moss, an award-winning journalist, author and international public speaker about preventing burnout. Jennifer, thanks so much for hopping on with me today.

Jennifer Moss Yeah. Thank you so much for having me and looking forward to the conversation. 

Mathilde Collin I’m so much looking forward to it as well. So, Jennifer, you’re known as an expert in happiness and workplace workplace well-being, two topics I’m passionate about, and you’ve even authored a book about it called Unlocking Happiness at Work, in addition to writing many articles for many large publications. So I’m curious, is there a moment in time that first drove your interest in the intersection between happiness and work? And if so, what was it?

Jennifer Moss You know, it’s really interesting, so I’ve been working in communications around here and well-being and just all of the things that impact the workplace and the future work for for a long time. And then, you know, I was living in Silicon Valley doing that work. And my husband, who is a pro athlete or was at the time, he’s retired now, but he went at the time he ended up becoming acutely paralyzed. Interestingly, right now, as we’re speaking, it was from the swine flu epidemic and he got very sick. And so one of the things that we learned right off was that he wasn’t going to walk again. And the thing when you’re in that moment, you sort of just reset all your priorities, right. And so it wasn’t about anything like rebounding, going back to playing. It was just getting through it and walking again. But athletes tend to have this sort of superpower. And that’s why I think we study leadership through the lens of sports psychology, because so many of the traits of early identified high performers are found in that capacity to overcome. And Jim walked out of that hospital after six weeks. And what it really taught us was that it was gratitude. It was hopefulness, it was mindset. It was emotional flexibility. It was all of these precursors to post-traumatic growth that are developed in young people when their identifies high performers. And so we went on to really try to figure out how that applies across a larger scale. How do we develop psychological fitness and people in the workplace? How do we make sure that they’re prepared for really big events or stressors? And the reason why it was work was because I learned a stat early on that we spend 50 percent of our waking hours at work in our lifetime. And so what a better place to have interventions than in a place that we’re spending so much of our waking hours. And that’s sort of what led me to being where I’m at today.

Mathilde Collin I first I’m sorry, and I’m also very happy that he got better. One of the things that I’ve read from you and I think you read this in the Harvard Business Review, is that the saying "if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life" is a myth. And so I’d be curious to understand from you why you think this sentence or this belief can be dangerous.

Jennifer Moss So first off, I’m passion-driven person and I love what I do, but are there a lot of times in the day that I feel like I’m working, you know? Absolutely. Do I have a hard time putting on the self care hat on me? Yes, because I love what I do. And highly engaged, high performing people also tend to have perfectionist concerns and where they’re driven and so they don’t take care of themselves. They can be engaged and yet burnt out. And so one of the important aspects to that is that we can have harmonious passion. We can be really well fueled by our work where we love it. And passion and purpose and meaning in our work is actually a prophylaxis to burn out. It’s just that it needs to be managed and needs to be moderated and considered and labeled so that we can be better at diagnosing it. So, yes, you can have passionate people and purpose driven people and they can be burned out. 

Mathilde Collin That makes sense. So now, knowing that one of your beliefs and tell me if I’m wrong, is that the the responsibility, the responsibility for preventing burnout is moving more towards organizations and individuals. And so I’m curious. I’m I’m a leader. So many leaders are going to listen to you. And what are your recommendations for leaders to prevent burnout from being a big part of their organization?

Jennifer Moss So absolutely. And we’ve looked at burnout for a long time as an individual problem to solve, you know, just do more self care. And you do. And a lot of organizations actually have had well-being strategies that sort of focus in on that sort of the life on site culture or there’s perks with Heart of Business gym memberships and yoga and all of these things, which are really actually great. Don’t do away with any of those things. They’re excellent, but it’s understanding that they’re really for people that are pretty well and that’s helping them to optimize their wellbeing. When we’re talking about mental illness, I mean, these are things that can’t necessarily be solved just by individual health care. These are things that potentially are systemic. It could be overwork. It could be people not being able to talk to their manager at a point where they’re feeling burned out or they’re seeing the symptoms of burnout. It’s about fairness and equity and dealing with some root causes that are sort of beyond even just the organizational level and social structures that we need to battle. And so, again, I don’t think it’s just an individual problem or an organizational problem. It’s just it’s a whole entire "we" problem to solve. And so when leaders are looking as a first step in trying to prevent burnout, I really try to encourage looking at this from micro steps. It’s just a change that’s going to take a long time. And so let’s start small. I really strongly suggest a Friday meeting where we ask these three questions, and that is, is this week particularly stressful? Why or why not? So what were the things that helped you to feel motivated? What was good about this week? What was really stressful about this week? And what can I do as a manager or leader to make next week better? How do I support you in your in your amazing optimism and all the great things that you feel good about this week? What can I also do for those of you who are feeling extremely stressed. That checking in part is where really is the secret sauce. Because it’s consistently checking in. If it’s looking for language like "I’m tired all the time", repeated themes of people feeling cynical, like they can’t change. You know, it’s really getting to the root of those problems way further upstream than tackling them when someone is actually taking long term disability for being burnt out.

Mathilde Collin Yeah, that makes sense. And to be very tactical here, would you recommend a manager, chickens, checks in live like a one on one or just sends an email weekly asking these questions that, you know, the person can answer?

Jennifer Moss We should have both in-person check ins and team meetings. So what’s really important is for teams to actually talk openly and feel safe in talking to each other. So we need to have one on ones where these questions are asked, but we need to talk about how we as a team can collaboratively support each other, because often we live in a silo and it’s the team dynamic that actually causes burnout to lack of community. And feeling like we’re not bonded as a team is a predictor for burnout, too. So it’s always just the individual burnout. But it also makes sure that we’re feeling like we’re destigmatizing workplace stress and feeling anxiety about whatever it is that we’re dealing with, that week. That we can share that as a team together. 

Mathilde Collin And should the manager also answer the question in front of their team?

Jennifer Moss Absolutely. One hundred percent. Leaders need to model the behavior that’s absolutely critical to change any culture. So if you are a manager that’s saying go and take this really great course that H.R. is offering, but you never attend, if you’re saying answer emails, don’t answer emails after six. But I will. Don’t answer emails on vacation, but I will. All of those behaviors make people feel like that’s a lack of trust. Why would I do that? I can’t be what I can’t see. So all of their behaviors as leaders translate into an ecosystem sort of contagion approach where we all start thinking and behaving in similar ways.

Mathilde Collin That makes sense. Something I mean, I hear a lot about, I try to be very vulnerable in front of the team. Last year was definitely tough, like the pandemic. I was pregnant for the first time and I tried to tell the team that I wasn’t feeling great all the time. And then I feel like it makes them way more comfortable then sharing that with me or with their managers.

Jennifer Moss Yeah, I absolutely agree and I think I mean, the idea of vulnerability and empathy and leadership and I’ve really tried to to say let’s be done with that as a soft skill. I mean, it’s really hard to be vulnerable. It’s really challenging to be empathetic consistently. It’s not easy to be kind in every situation. So the idea that that’s not a hard skill I think is totally wrong. And the more that we can understand that it’s transformational and that will actually engage your team. And that’s a human centered approach to leadership. And those human centered approaches to leadership just statistically are at the highest performing organizations across the world. And we sort of tie that together. Then it’ll make it easier for others to join in.

Mathilde Collin That makes sense. That thing I’m curious about is besides being a good employer and being willing to have happy employees, why do you think organizations and leaders should really focus on preventing burnout with some of the ideas you just shared?

Jennifer Moss Well, the thing was preventing burnout, it’s really interesting because I used to be a happiness expert and I say I went from a happiness expert to being a unhappiness expert because I talk about burnout. But my first article that I wrote way back for Harvard Business Review was titled Happiness is Not the Absence of Negative Emotions. And when you actually look at changing your happiness set point you have to actually embrace the bad and understand that these feelings are part of it to really move forward. And I think with when we look at preventing burnout, it’s understanding that it isn’t just about improving all the time or being at a level of happiness that is unsustainable. It’s really looking at how do we attack the problems that are making us unhappy. What are the what are the pebbles that greeted us every single day that can be so easily solved, but it requires having empathy in the way that we treat it to prevent that. So it’s all tied together in a lot of ways. Wellness and well-being and burnout, prevention,  it’s tied together. The way that we tackle each one is different, but the goals are the same. Getting people to feel a more healthier experience of work, to have a healthier and happier experience of life. And those who don’t bifurcate anymore, they’re all tangled up. So how do we make it that we’re just thinking about preventing burnout as an upstream tactic to increasing overall well-being in our personal lives?

Mathilde Collin And are other numbers or ideas of costs that companies will suffer from if they don’t tackle this problem?

Jennifer Moss Yeah, there’s a massive outlay of expenses when you look at first of all, I mean, burnout causes one hundred and twenty five thousand deaths in the US a year. When you look at medical expense outlays, it’s around seven percent of the health care output. So you imagine that broken down into each organization and what they’re putting into their health care spend. It’s significant. You also just see trillions of dollars spent on days that show up in presenteeism or absenteeism or sick days. It’s true in the trillions of dollars that are impacting organizations across the globe. And so the idea that being upstream is a nice to have is actually saving the organization millions of dollars in outlays of long term disability. And the problem with burnout in that word is that we’ve sort of just made it not important. We’ve sort of loosened the way that we feel about it over the years, that etymology of the word went from burnout to someone sitting on the couch and quitting school and doing drugs. And it also had to do with someone that just wasn’t living their life the way that they should be. And then it also went to the soccer mom doing too much after work. And she’s burning out because she’s in the cult of busy no work, according to the WHO, the World Health Organization, burnout is the result of unmanaged stress at work. It’s an occupational phenomena. So when we start to look at it like that, any time someone is experiencing burnout, which can be catastrophic, that is an impact on us financially from a revenue standpoint. And just as human beings, we should be caring about it anyway.

Mathilde Collin Yeah, no, that makes sense. And one thing that it’s funny, because I talk a lot about happiness at work and engaged workplaces and I’m deeply passionate that this is why I’m so excited to be with you today. And one of the things I share is I am, of course, convinced that everything we do at Front to have employees happy to come to work every day leads to better outcomes for the company and then better outcome for the company also leads to happier employees. And so I think that it’s not just that like we’re caring individuals that want to do what’s best for human beings. I also think that as leaders, we have a direct incentive to do this. 

Jennifer Moss Absolutely. I mean, even just sales, for example, someone that is happy at work is three times more. They have three times better sales than their unhappy counterpart. They’re ten times taking ten times less sick days, I mean, just from our physical health. And so then you have all of this better for the employee. But then then there’s all these great outcomes for the company, too. And you’re right, it just it cycles. But so often it’s like these are the metrics. You hit these goals and then you’ll be happy. Happiness Advantage, which I love, has such a great way of thinking about it. We just need to flip that upside down and say, no, actually, if you’re happy fundamentally, then you get all these other great precursors to the benefits to happiness, which makes everyone happy. 

Mathilde Collin Yeah, one trend that we’re seeing right now is companies are doing remote first more and more. And so one thing I’m curious to hear from you is what do you think are some ways organizations can prevent burnout and encourage more balance in this new set up where you are not in a different place when you’re working?

Jennifer Moss So I’m a big fan of flexibility and preCovid, I was just shouting from the rooftops, we need the ability for people to be able to work from home. That needs to be their option or their choice. Then we go through the pandemic and everyone’s working from home and then it just sort of flips to the other side where it’s like, well, now everyone can work from home. And I’m shouting what we need to get people also back in office. The ideal sort of environment is really a hybrid approach or an opportunity maybe if it’s mostly working from home or mostly digital first, then there’s ways to get a team together at the same time in the office. So one of the other issues about returning to work that people are feeling and those people have started to come back into work is that they’re feeling kind of lonely in the workplace, which totally diffuses the benefits to us emotionally and physically of actually connecting with people in person. So we need both. And I think however ways organizations want to shape that, whether it’s like gathering the team for three days, once a month, whatever that looks like, or three days a week like Google is actually gone, which is a big deal for Google because I never thought that they would pull themselves away from being life on site. But they have three days now that they’re working within two days remote, and that’s a huge leap for them. So I think as long as we can get some sort of hybrid approach where there’s still connections with each other in person, as well as having the flexibility to be remote, that’s an ideal state.

Mathilde Collin Got it. And I’m glad you’re saying this. This is the approach we’re taking. It is one thing that we’ll also do, and I think a lot of companies are considering is there are also teams that will be fully remote. So even if that’s not, the majority of the company will have some of them. And you’ve talked and tell me if I’m wrong about face time bias. And so I’m curious if you think that this hybrid model that will require some flexibility and therefore sometimes some people will be in office when others will be remote, can lead to some bad outcomes.

Jennifer Moss So this has been something too, you’re right, hit the nail on the head, and I’ve been talking about this already preCovid. I wrote about this about four years ago around, you know, burn out in remote teams. And part of that is this inability to have these serendipitous moments where you bump into each other and you talk about the kids or the family members or the dad that’s sick or whatever those things are where you create these bonding moments. And because we are genetically that’s part of our genetic imprint, is that we want to share mirror neurons on the savannahs. We would be eaten by saber tooth tigers if we didn’t have a tribe. So that’s definitely built into who we are. When we’re missing that tribe, we feel disconnected. And that’s why video conferencing is a good substitute. But it isn’t actually doing what you need to be in person with one another. So that is an issue for leaders that need to be making sure that they’re creating space to to ask questions that are totally not work related. They need to create serendipitous moments. And that’s saying let’s have it just calling them up or chatting with them when there’s time to say, hey, what’s going on with your life? How you doing having those moments where it’s totally non work related or how you can maybe create those bonds that change the shape of your relationship? I also really encourage that social collaboration chats are not proctored or social collaboration. Platforms are not proctored that we don’t say you have so much time that you’re allowed to be on them. We need to make it so that everyone can use it when they need it, that it’s about creating culture in a virtual way. And then we create these opportunities to have serendipitous moments. Again, like here’s the parent group. Here’s a group that wants to talk about axe throwing. Here’s the quilting group. Create environments where we can bond in a virtual way for those people that are disparate from the team. 

Mathilde Collin Because you talked about parents. I don’t know if I had my first daughter last year in September, eight months ago, and I came back from maternity leave just a few months ago. And so this is top of mind for me. I’m curious if you have thoughts on how employers can help parents have a great balance.

Jennifer Moss So there’s been a real impact and disproportionately, unfortunately, on women this year. We’ve lost women from the labor force. They’re almost two times more likely to lose to leave the workforce than their male counterparts in the pandemic, which is unlike any other crisis that we’ve seen ever. This is just very different in the way that it’s disproportionately impacted women with children. And so a lot of that has to do with the fact that we are still sort of behaving in a lot of places, and I wouldn’t say that at Front, but I say and I’ve seen this in other places where it’s kind of like business as usual, still not understanding that we’re in a pandemic and then we’ll be in a recovery mode for a while. And there could be kids still now staying at home where there’s just so many distractions, which is increasing because chronic stress and brain fog, which makes us demotivated, like there’s all these other things that are just happening that we we have to understand as employers that our job is to pull the spinning plates, the ones that we can and do whatever we can for those other things that we can’t control know. Is that more flexibility? Is it just making sure that if there’s a mom or a dad that needs to have their camera off, they don’t need to be on camera if there’s kids running around, which is probably a lot of what you’re doing already. But those very tactical things and also, again, that Friday check in solves a lot of that. What happened this week? What are you feeling? What is going on now? I can help you with can I support you in any way? Or if I can’t, how am I a support system? What are some things locally that I can do that help give you that space or that time? I mean, there are a lot of things we can do. We also, as leaders can’t be married to the things that we decide to try. You know, I saw a lot of companies at the beginning put in like the yoga and the well-being stuff. And it was really great for a couple of weeks. And then it was it was just not working for people. They kind of felt like it was workload. So it’s like, let’s look at this as a trial and error time, not get married to our tactical solutions and be able to listen, actively listen to find out what people need.

Mathilde Collin Yeah, that makes sense. I know we’re at the end of our time. I have one final question, which is, are you I’m going to I will have a follow up to the final question. Are you passionate about your job?

Jennifer Moss Oh, yes, I mean, I I have to turn myself off constantly because I have just so wound up, as you can see, I’ve got the hands. You know, I care deeply because I think it’s a meaningful topic. And when I can just make a dent, I feel so passionate about about that work.

Mathilde Collin And I could tell. So my my my full of question was, how do you manage to remain balanced so that you can make sure to never feel the burn out or any bad things that you described earlier?

Jennifer Moss It takes a lot of work, actually. You know, it takes work. It’s intentional. It’s not easy. I have to understand that I am an expert in this. And so there can’t be irony and I have to walk the talk. But I also give myself a lot of grace. And if there’s times where I’m feeling really tired, I have to take that space. I have to do the work. I think sometimes just lie in my pajamas for a day if I have to, because that’s OK. And it’s about removing the guilt from that. And that’s a very hard learned behavior as a high performing person is removing the guilt from having those days. And it’s still a work in progress and I am a work in progress, but I really do use my tools so that I can function. But it’s not easy. And so for people that are saying, oh, yeah, I’ll just cure my burnout by doing these simple tactics, it’s not like that. It’s an evolution. It’s a it’s a lifestyle change. And it’s not a diet. 

Mathilde Collin That makes sense. And how many hours a week would you say you work?

Jennifer Moss I really do manage my calendar and very good at it. I probably put in 40 hours a week, sometimes 35, but I do put time in my calendar. So Monday I have meetingless Mondays and I commit to that. And I don’t take talks on Mondays, even if there’s someone saying, I really want you to do a talk on Monday and I have six talks a week, I will say no and I’ll turn it down. I don’t create false urgency. So things that I know could be urgent or the client needs or someone needs, everyone can work around that schedule. I’m not necessary. I’m not going and fixing someone’s brain. This isn’t life or death. I have a role that’s meaningful, but it is not the most important thing on the planet. My own health so I can do more of it is it how I sustain. But it is it is work and we need to keep that in and in our back of our minds as leaders constantly.

Mathilde Collin I couldn’t agree more. Well, thank you so much, Jennifer. I learned so much. I’m sure people that will listen to this video will learn a lot. And I will make sure that Front is a place where I lead by example and other leaders as well, so that, you know, less people can suffer from burnout.

Jennifer Moss That’s great. It was so wonderful talking to you. I love what you’re doing there. And I think you’re the example of great leadership doing really important work.

Mathilde Collin Thank you so much.

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