Avoiding the threat of moral burnout

Avoiding the threat of moral burnout

London Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan Police have been in the news recently for the wrong reasons . LFB has been identified as “institutionally misogynist(ic) and racist” by an independent review, but cases of discrimination, harassment and bullying are not unique to high pressure jobs such as Fire and Police. Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor for north-west England, who conducted the review said “I ask anyone who’s rushing to judgement on London Fire Brigade to look in the mirror and look at themselves because they will see similar things happening.” Alongside the more visible reputational damage, observed by clients, stakeholders and the public in general, there are less obvious but harmful impacts on the employees, who are neither perpetrators nor victims of toxic behaviour.

What is moral burnout?

Those employees in an invidious workplace environment are put in the position of surviving (possibly by quiet quitting), complaining, leaving or joining in. People who complain, the bravest and hence a minority, put themselves at risk. For the rest, often they will suffer from ‘moral burnout’ after experiencing moral injury over an extended period. Cath Everett defines moral injury to people as “a cognitive and emotional response that occurs when they undertake, witness and/or fail to prevent behaviour that violates their personal values.”

Cara de Lange, founder and CEO of employee well-being consultancy Softer Success, believes that moral burnout has been growing rapidly in recent years and not yet peaked, and estimates that between 10% and 20% of all employees are affected.


According to Dr Kara Ng, presidential fellow in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, moral burnout is “particularly hard for business leaders to recognise and tackle … because moral norms are inherently ‘very subjective’, an act that’s morally injurious to one person may not even register with someone else.”

The impact of moral burnout

Moral burnout impacts people in different ways such as declining physical health as would be experienced through work-related burnout. It can also cause people to become morally disengaged; their values can be corrupted for example by resorting to victim blaming or making excuses for unacceptable behaviour. Everett believes this “not only normalises damaging ways of interacting; it also makes moral burnout contagious.”

What can be done?

Clearly leaders need to look for and deal with moral burnout and especially its causes in their organisations. Dr Eileen Ward, chartered psychologist and partner at the Leadenhall Wellbeing consultancy, stresses the power of listening, “Once people feel heard, most can navigate to a better place in their minds themselves.”

Coming back to those who complain, people need to feel safe enough to share their concerns without negative consequences. Leaders who suspect that they have problems with the organisational culture, whether formal or underhand, need a place to start before blindly interviewing lots of their employees. People will have opinions about the situation – opinions which they may not be prepared to share openly with leaders. This is information about the business, not the individual, which we call organisation experience (OX) data. Tensense is a digital early warning system for your business which can be used to collect OX data confidentially from your people, alerting you to any unseen issues which they have identified. You can watch a short video here.

Photo by Tangerine Newt on Unsplash