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HomeNewsFred Hutch psychologist discusses ways employers can help workers combat stress.

Fred Hutch psychologist discusses ways employers can help workers combat stress.

Megan Shen, associate professor and Fred Hutch psychologist at the GeekWire Summit 2022. (GeekWire Photo/ Dan DeLong).

The phrase “burnout” has taken on new meaning during the pandemic.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show that 40% of those polled in 2020 claimed the pandemic has affected their mental health. Even higher mental health problems were reported by women and those aged 18-24.

“I would argue what we’re experiencing right now goes kind of above and beyond what traditional burnout looks like,” said Megan Shen, a psychologist and associate professor with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who studies grief in individuals and families with terminal cancer.

“We’ve got COVID we’ve had mass shootings, we’ve got wars, it’s a hard time,” said Shen. “The burnout we’re experiencing right now is a lot of trauma, stress, uncertainty, loneliness, loss and ultimately grief that has not been dealt with, that has nowhere to go.”

Shen gave a speech at the GeekWire Summit, which took place in Seattle this month. Shen explained the causes of enduring burnout, and suggested solutions for work environments.

Shen said many people are dealing with personal and collective grief — for lost loved ones; for missed futures, freedom and daily rhythms; and for the loss of social connection.

She said that while people tend to want to run away from loss and sadness, with grief, “you have to grieve and move through it.” She quoted the poet Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Amidst loss people can find light and resilience.

Shen said that workplaces can be flexible to support employees in overcoming grief and help them motivate and inspire their staff. It isn’t enough to just take a vacation.

“I would like to argue that what we’re experiencing collectively is not a liability,” she said. “There’s actually a real opportunity to rethink how we do things.”

Shen said that employers have a lot of potential to win. The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety are the leading causes of global economic decline at $1 trillion per year. This is mainly due to reduced productivity.

Shen suggested that employers can create the infrastructure necessary to help workers in three different ways.


People experienced loneliness throughout the pandemic. Employers can create connections between team members and their supervisors.

“We have to think about how to do that meaningfully,” said Shen. “This could be one-on-one, check-ins with team members, seeing how people are actually doing; having purposeful in-person meetings and events where you get to catch up on each other’s lives.”

slide from Megan Shens talk
There are many ways workplaces can be supportive of employees. (Megan Shen Image

Encourage hope

People don’t need to think that things will go back to how they once were or that work and life will be easy, said Shen. But people “do need vision” for how they can adapt meaningfully to the way things operate now. “The key to hope is vision,” said Shen.

Meaning creation:

Meaning is key,” said Shen. “Most of the time burnout doesn’t happen because there’s too much work and not enough time. It often happens because there’s not a meaningful connection to the work that we’re doing,” she said. There’s a lot of different ways employers can infuse work with meaning, and it’s important to do.

Added Shen: “If you can find ways to infuse meaning throughout your teams and even in yourself, you will be amazed at how that reduces the feeling of burnout.”

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