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Burnout Recovery: Healing from Moral Injury in the Workplace

Moral injury is a deep wound to the soul that occurs when we perpetrate, witness, or fail to prevent acts that conflict with our own deeply held moral beliefs. While the concept originated in the context of military combat, moral injury can occur in any high-stakes environment—including the workplace.

In a professional setting, moral injury might look like:

  • Being pressured to lie, cheat, or cut corners to meet impossible targets.

  • Witnessing or participating in the mistreatment of colleagues, customers, or vulnerable populations.

  • Staying silent about ethical breaches or misconduct out of fear of retaliation.

  • Realizing that your work is causing harm to people, communities, or the environment.

The symptoms of moral injury are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You might experience intense shame, guilt, anger, or disgust; have intrusive memories or nightmares; struggle with self-loathing and a loss of self-trust; or feel profoundly betrayed by those in power.

Left unaddressed, these symptoms can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicidal thoughts. Moral injury can also shatter our sense of purpose and belonging, leaving us feeling alienated from our work and disconnected from our values. For these reasons, it is a key contributor to burnout.

If you're struggling with moral injury from a workplace event, know that you're not alone and your pain is valid. What happened to you matters, and your healing matters too.

Here are some steps you can take to begin your burnout recovery journey:

Name the injury.

The first step in healing moral injury is acknowledging that it happened. This can be challenging, especially if you're used to minimizing your own pain or blaming yourself for negative outcomes.

Try to identify the specific event or events that violated your moral code, and the specific values or beliefs that were violated. Naming the wound is an act of self-compassion and the beginning of reclaiming your story.

Seek supportive witnesses.

Moral injury thrives in isolation and secrecy. Speaking your truth to caring, non-judgmental listeners can help you break the shame spiral and start to process the emotions you've been carrying.

Seek out trusted friends, family members, a therapist, or a coach who can hold space for your pain without trying to fix you. Look for people who can validate your experiences and remind you of your inherent goodness.

Practice self-forgiveness.

Moral injury often involves intense feelings of guilt and self-blame, even when the situation was beyond your control. You may find yourself replaying the event in your mind, berating yourself for not doing more or speaking up sooner.

Remember that hindsight is 20/20, and you were doing the best you could with the information and resources you had at the time. Practice extending compassion to your past self, and forgiveness for any perceived failures or shortcomings.

Reconnect with your values.

Moral injury can leave you feeling untethered and uncertain of your place in the world. Take time to clarify the values that are most important to you, and explore how you can live in greater alignment with them moving forward.

This might mean advocating for change within your organization, finding a new job that better fits your ethical code, or volunteering for a cause you believe in. Small, daily actions that affirm your values can help you reclaim a sense of integrity and purpose.

Seek meaning in the struggle.

In the aftermath of moral injury, it's natural to question the meaning and purpose of your experiences. Why did this happen to me? What have I learned?

While there are no easy answers, many people find healing in turning their suffering into service. You might become a mentor for others facing similar challenges, work to reform toxic systems, or use your story to raise awareness about moral injury in the workplace.

Remember, you are not defined by what happened to you, but by how you choose to grow and heal in its wake.

Be patient with the process.

Recovering from moral injury is a long and non-linear journey. Some days you may feel clear and empowered, while other days you may be right back in the thick of grief and anger. This is normal and does not mean you are doing something wrong.

Burnout recovery happens in spirals, not straight lines. Trust that every moment of self-compassion and every choice to live in integrity is moving you forward, even when you can't yet feel the progress.

Above all, know that you are worthy of healing, no matter how broken you may feel. What happened to you does not determine your value or your destiny. You have the power to alchemize your pain into a force for good in the world, and to emerge from this experience with newfound resilience and wisdom.


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.


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