What is moral fatigue?

Moral fatigue is a cognitive dissonance.  It’s when a person’s decisions conflict with their beliefs, ethos, or moral expectations. With intense challenges presented during a global health pandemic, simple decisions are weighed on a different scale. Families are deciding to stay distant and safe for the holidays, conflicting with traditions and expectations of holiday celebrations. At work, leadership is balancing the safety of all personnel with the reality of economic stressors. Some conflicts may even seem small and easy to overcome, however, a consistent stressor can increase over time and express itself as avoidance behaviors, irritability, impatience, and fatigue.

“People are having to make decisions that are now moral dilemmas, and it’s exhausting,” said Ezekiel Sanders, a licensed psychologist at Providence Medical Group.

How is this different from burnout?

Moral fatigue is a cause of burnout. Increased workload, inefficiencies, excessive admin work, difficult schedules, tech issues, and more contribute to burnout.

Moral fatigue is a factor that individuals, employees, and leaders need to consider, especially during a global health crisis. Psychological stress at work can happen when an individual participates in an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, and values. In the medical field, the decisions are often severe and the condition is referred to as Moral Injury.  While nurses and physicians are dealing with life and death decisions, we can learn a lot from what they’re going through and empathize with their conflicts.

  • How can you care for yourself and your team without adequate resources?
  • How do you cope with fear and anger because of insufficient resources and also focus on the task at hand?
  • How do you provide for your family and keep them safe if you have to physically report to work?
  • How do you keep your business going and also follow along with protocols to keep everyone safe?
  • With all this on your plate, how in the heck do you take care of yourself while you also are taking care of others?

These kinds of challenges can present themselves in any work environment where an employee is in direct conflict with their moral beliefs. Some conditions that lead to moral fatigue are a lack of input or agency to make decisions based on health and safety. Unresolved disagreements with supervisors or poor communication can contribute, as well as inappropriate use of resources or unsafe conditions for staff. These conditions, where an individual cannot live up to their own values, can lead to increased stress, conflict, or distrust of authority, burnout, and mental fatigue.

So, Now What?

Take things one step at a time. Sanders suggests slowing down, seeking support, and being compassionate with yourself. Normalizing fears and doubts through open conversations can help minimize anxiety. “If you find yourself being impatient or irritable, for example, acknowledge it and try to understand why you might be feeling that way.” Explicitly identifying the moral conflict can help resolve the tension around it.

We are acutely aware of how our simple actions can potentially put others at risk. Understanding how our actions, expectations, and decisions affect others can open doors to resolve tensions. By acknowledging our interdependence we can move from a state of shock into a state of integration.

Addressing Moral Fatigue at Work

If you’re experiencing moral fatigue yourself or see symptoms of moral fatigue in your team, don’t just suffer in silence.  You or your team member are likely not alone.  Call on leadership for support.  Have the courage to address it in an appropriate fashion.

The specific answers to how to address moral fatigue are conditional to the situation.  But communication and an open heart tend to apply to all situations.

Here are some ways to improve conditions and slow or prevent moral injury.

  • Slow down.
  • Show empathy for yourself and others.  We are all doing our best in a unique year.
  • Remind your team of mental health resources available and work to destigmatize its use.
  • Emphasize communication.  Share personal experiences of your own struggles and opportunities.  Check-in on the well-being of your team members.
  • Invest in your people and their resilience.  Offer support for your team with online training, coaching, and/or resources for best navigating stressful situations.
  • Encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion in every team conversation.  Prioritizing these helps for better collaboration, communication, and team well-being.
  • Create systems that can adapt and change in favor of collective advocacy.
  • Above all, care for yourself.  That may look like a walk on your lunch break (with a mask, of course), stretching at your desk, or a quick meditation break.  Only when you care for yourself are you able to better care for others.

David Couper Consulting provides resilience training, leadership development, and executive coaching.