Is It Burnout—or Is It Moral Injury?

Moral injury, the condition of being put in a situation that goes against your ethical compass, may look on the surface like stress or burnout. But it goes deeper—and it can be driven by challenging situations in the workplace, an expert notes.

Association leaders are used to the challenges that come with the job—stress, burnout, and complex initiatives.

But when your fundamental morals are significantly challenged, you may meet a different dynamic that can’t be neatly categorized as “stress.”

It has a separate name—moral injury—and comes with complications that may not be as easy to resolve as a long workweek.

Rita Nakashima Brock, who leads the Shay Moral Injury Center as a senior vice president at Volunteers of America, noted that people have a moral compass that drives their decision-making.

“It’s so automatic, in many ways—it’s sort of habit in professions like medicine, or our first responders, or in the military,” she said. “You just have to learn habitual behaviors about how to perform your job.”

But when faced with a morally compromising work endeavor—or even a personal situation—you have to react. That reaction can create emotional or spiritual baggage that manifests itself as moral injury—a deep wound to someone’s conscience.

While the term “moral injury” is rooted in military and first-responder conditions, it translates to the business world. Perhaps, for example, your organization has faced a significant setback that forces you to make decisions you fear might cause harm. Maybe you’ve had to accept money from a donor whose values don’t align with those of your association, or you’ve had to lay some employees off. Combined with external factors—say, a pandemic—these situations can create complexities and challenges that go beyond stress.

“They may even feel a deep shame that they couldn’t do anything to save the situation that they may be vaguely angry at the conditions or the causes of why they had to do what they had to do,” Brock said.

Whether you have witnessed moral injury among your colleagues or members—or are grappling with it yourself—there are ways to work through it, beginning with spotting it in the first place.

Moral Injury Warning Signs

Moral injury may not explicitly manifest on the outside. Someone might continue as usual without taking the time to process what happened—think of someone who buries themselves in work immediately after the death of a loved one.

It can be hard for observers to catch signs of a problem, but that doesn’t mean those signs aren’t there. Brock explained that one of the strongest indicators that someone is facing moral injury is a change in demeanor—a flatness to the way the person acts.

A big reason for that flatness is that people may not feel that they can talk about what’s bothering them.

“They may feel like if they talked about it in a professional context, they might lose their job,” Brock said. “They could have a boss or employment system that makes it too high-risk. And so they will carry it as long as they can.”

The result is a tendency to suppress the underlying injury, in part out of fear that it might lead to negative judgment from employers or even family members.

In extreme cases, she noted, it can lead to addiction, or even death, in attempts to conceal painful emotional issues.

“These are all really difficult conditions to have to function as a moral human being,” Brock said. “And so what they actually need is a way that they can trust and feel safe to process the experience.”

Working Through Moral Injury

So how can you resolve a moral injury? The answer might not be finding a full resolution, but choosing to understand and appreciate that the moral injury exists. Brock compared it to a physical injury like a lost limb, rather than a wound that might eventually heal.

“It’s a life-changing experience that’s just the way life throws things at us,” she said. “It’s not something we can control that happens to us. Some people are lucky and don’t ever have a devastating moral injury in their lives, and others who have multiple ones, and the recovery process is actually admitting it’s there.”

While it may not be possible to fully resolve moral injury, mitigation is possible. Brock suggested that even taking room for pauses amid stressful situations can significantly help. She cited an example of a hospital chaplain who encouraged staff handling code blue incidents where a patient dies to take a moment of silence to allow for a brief prayer—and a moment to clear their heads.

“It was so, so valuable, what she was doing, that they started calling her the ‘minute chaplain,’” Brock noted. “I think she’s saved a lot of people from one moral injury by doing that because they didn’t have to stuff it.”

Another way to help may be talking through issues with someone who is separated from the situation and who can help someone dealing with suppressed memories by enabling a neutral discussion.

“If you feel heard or listened to, sometimes you surprise yourself because you say things you’ve never said before, or tell things you’ve never told before,” she said. “That externalizes the experience so that you can begin the processing of it.”

She also recommended that HR teams encourage staff members to leverage employee assistance programs. However, she was clear that while working through moral injury has parallels to traditional mental health treatment, it is not the same as therapy.

“I think recovery from moral injury actually is better supported through friendship,” she said.

(Bulat/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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