You’re mad as hell and for good reason, perhaps. I would be too if I was doing my bit at work and feeling like I was treated unfairly. And when this happens, you’re bound to be struck by a ton of negative thoughts that spin endlessly through your head and drive you to burn out. In fact, unfairness is the 2nd of 7 factors I’ve identified as to why we see burnout on the job:
One of the ways we define the word “unfair” is “unkind, inconsiderate, or unreasonable.” Another is simply when there is a lack of equality or justice.
From the time we are young, we get angry when we perceive the events around us to be unfair. I see this every day with my kids. One of them inevitably complains how it’s unfair that the other got something they also want.
When we perceive unfairness, we naturally become angry and this is a good thing. Anger powers us up to fight for our rights, to get our voices heard. It’s important that we listen to that voice inside us that wants to make things right because the alternative is to push down our anger and freeze or flee.
While being exposed to injustice can contribute to burnout, researchers Maslach and Leiter noted that employees who are already experiencing burnout symptoms, like emotional exhaustion or cynicism, are more likely to burn out than their colleagues when they perceive unfairness at work. In addition, lack of fairness can affect how satisfied you feel and whether you show up for work or leave the job altogether.
Lack of Clarity, Certainty or Predictability
Remember how you felt when COVID hit and you found out you had to quarantine? Maybe you were a hero, but many folks felt anxious about the lack of certainty regarding their future. They were left with a lot of questions about what to do, how to do it, and when they could expect a return to the norm.
The same is true at work. When you don’t have a clear idea about what’s expected of you, it can create chaos. Then one day you find out that you got it wrong – not because you were careless, but because the instructions your boss gave you were vague.
Sometimes it’s more than a mere task that’s vague. There might be ambiguity about your entire role. This often happens in organizations that are rapidly growing. They haven’t thought things through. They are experimenting. They recognize they need someone in a new role (that’s you), but the instructions and expectations for that role are left unclear.
That’s like going to a restaurant and instead of ordering something you know you like, especially because you’ve had it before, you tell the waiter, “Whatever sounds good to you.” This surprise element means you may or may not like what you get. The waiter may not get as big a tip if what he brings over isn’t to your liking, but that wouldn’t be his fault. You set it up that way. Is your work setting you up as well by not being clear at the outset?
Bearing the Blame
When you were a kid, did your teacher ever blame you for being disruptive when it was really the kid sitting behind you? Yup, sometimes you get blamed for things you didn’t do because the person in charge puts the responsibility on you despite the fact that the task is outside of your role.
You might work in an environment where people are filled with dread about getting in trouble. Anytime we feel threatened, we tend to run for cover. What this looks like at work is we point fingers, we keep a low profile, and when someone takes the blame, we don’t stand up for them. Is that happening at your place of work? Are you being blamed unfairly for things outside of your control or for things that have nothing to do with you?
You know how when someone cuts you off in traffic after you’ve been patiently waiting, you just want to scream? That same sense of injustice can just about make most people (with the exception of Buddhist monks) lose their mind.
What does this look like in the workplace? How about getting unequal pay (as we’ve historically seen in the discrepancy between men and women), being given an inequitable distribution of the workload, watching the organization you work for engage in illegal or immoral acts, or seeing others getting ahead through dishonest means?
Here’s a scenario straight out of my book, The 7E Solution to Burnout:
“Julie was one such client who experienced unfair treatment at work. The CEO of the company put her in charge of several accounts. Julie’s manager was someone who had been her peer, who had moved up in the company. When Julie went on vacation, her manager went behind her back and contacted one of Julie’s accounts attempting to change the contract with the account holder.
When Julie returned to work and found out what happened, she contacted her company’s CFO to discuss the financial ramifications of changing her account’s contract. On finding out, her manager demanded that she come into his office for a face-to-face meeting. He felt that Julie made him look bad in front of the company’s upper management and was in a rage. Julie, on the other hand, felt that her manager was threatening and condescending to her, and not only neglected to take the time to understand her job responsibilities, but had tried to undermine her work. This made Julie feel a mixture of outrage and loss of confidence.”
Let’s take it one step further. What if your company isn’t just unjust, but their treatment of you is right out unfair? Ever feel like you’re being exploited when the demands on you are unrealistic or when you feel like there’s an undercurrent of an ultimatum?
You’ll especially be fuming if there is unfair bias, discrimination, unwarranted advances, or other cruel mistreatment. This behavior is inexcusable. As hard as it might feel, you need to be clear that you do not have to put up with such behavior. This is where your boundaries come in.
The trouble is often that people miss the signs of micro-aggressions or don’t have enough support to know whom they can trust with their negative experience.
It’s no surprise that daily exposure to this treatment takes a toll and in some ways sabotages the worker. The more job strain you feel, the more likely you are to feel emotionally exhausted, cynical about work, and sometimes that negativity can trickle into your perception of yourself.
Ever wonder why some people get upset about something that seems completely a non-issue for you? That’s because we each have unique needs and values. Autonomy is a great example of that. In my book, I state that, “autonomy is an innate psychological need that, when satisfied, allows the person to function more optimally. When we are given the freedom to act in harmony with our needs, we feel more in control, more respected, and more motivated. When working autonomously under stress, we cope more adaptively because we feel like we have more choice in how and when to respond.” Furthermore, “autonomy can help you stay engaged and promote leadership and other critical skills that escalate your professional career.” It’s no small matter to most people.
So what do you do if you’re being micromanaged? Chances are you’re feeling resentful about the extra scrutiny over your work. You might interpret that as “my boss doesn’t trust me to get the job done right.”
As it turns out, when you have high demands plus low autonomy, this is a recipe for emotional exhaustion. Not only that, but low autonomy on its own is what seems to bring about cynicism. Especially when you put your best foot forward, it feels unfair to not be trusted to do a good enough job.
In all my years working as a psychologist, one thing became clear. Most of our experiences are a result of our perception. Unfairness as well as the stress or frustration we feel all result from the interpretation we assign to our circumstances.
Say, for instance, you were abandoned as a child. It is possible that you might project your abandonment issues onto your work. When something doesn’t go your way, you might make it mean that you were ignored or disrespected. As psychologist Joan Borysenko says, “it can feel real, but you have to question the story.”
This is how we can start to challenge our automatic thinking. When you feel vulnerable or injured, rather than berating yourself, have your own back. Remember that you are a good person even if you’ve made a mistake and regardless of what others think of you.
What to Do in the Face of Unfairness?
If you’re currently facing unfair treatment on the job and feeling burned out, you may not know what to do. To simplify the situation, consider these two options:
- You never have to stay somewhere that feels toxic or abusive. Regardless of whether there is a grain of truth to your experience or not, if it feels truly unfair to you, that’s enough for you to decide to find another job.
- The other alternative, which is always a choice, is to shift your perception. This, of course, can be challenging, especially if you already feel cynical about your place of work. In that case, working with a coach, therapist, or mentor can help you see your blindspots. If you decide to go this route, ask yourself if your colleagues seem to have a similar experience at work or if your experience seems random.
Do you find yourself saying, “It’s not fair!” more often than not? Whether you lack clarity about your job expectations, are being blamed for things outside of your job scope, feel irritated about unjust policies of your organization, are being mistreated, or don’t have adequate autonomy, you are likely to burn out.
Pay attention to both your direct experiences at work and your perception of those experiences. If you feel wronged by those around you, take control of the situation to ensure your safety and wellbeing. Work to improve your circumstances or, if applicable, shift your interpretation.
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