The mental wellness crisis doesn’t start at burnout; it starts at “bleh”

Once we’ve reached burnout, it’s already too late. Can play save us from ourselves?

4 min readJul 1, 2022
Pictured: Mental wellness advocate Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy with an American hero

POV: You’re leading a mental wellness workshop with the US Dept of Health and Human Services, taking the brightest minds in public health through an improv exercise called “C’mere, C’mere,” involving swimming to imaginary islands.

This is not a fever dream; it’s the position we found ourselves in when our parent company, FLS+, had the chance to work with the HHS and its leader, the ‘Vicar of Vaccines’, ‘His Highness of Healthcare’, the ‘Doctor in the House’, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy.

(0/10 doctors approve these nicknames)

Why were we doing improv exercises with the group responsible for enhancing the health and well-being of all Americans?

Well, Surgeon General Murthy and his team believe we’re at a post-pandemic turning point: a unique opportunity to rebuild our society and workplaces to support mental health. Because the mental health crisis we’re in didn’t start with covid.

The U.S. mental health crisis pre-dates the pandemic

According to Murthy’s recent interview with comedians Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett, “we just weren’t focusing on or investing in it.”

In his time talking to people across the US, Murthy noticed that feelings of disconnection, loneliness and lack of meaning transcended age or gender — it wasn’t just senior citizens who were feeling isolated, it was college kids at big state schools, professionals with tons of coworkers, and young parents, too.

Of course, in the business world, we often associate these feelings of disconnect and emotional exhaustion with the buzzword of our times: burnout. The University of Massachusettes Lowell estimates that burnout “costs American companies more than $300 billion a year in health expenses, absenteeism, and poor performance.” But, as the market for “stress management” at work grows, there’s a paradox…

We can’t “fight” burnout

Once we reach “burnout,” there’s no “fight” left in us; it’s too late to “self-care” ourselves back to health. Much like a company that has developed a “toxic work culture,” when we hit the point of crisis, healing often requires a “hard reset.”

For a company, it might look like major changes in leadership/ownership (e.g. Uber’s 2017 overhaul). For individuals, it can look like quitting (e.g. “The Great Resignation”)

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t dedicate meaningful resources toward mental wellness until they’re in crisis — AKA when it’s already too late. And to take a page from the healthcare world, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So, let’s look at the smaller signs that come before burnout and how we can head it off at the pass.

The “bleh” before the “burnout”

Murthy notes that we can be in a “funk” long before we hit burnout. We can think about the pre-indicators of burnout like the few days before a cold: it could present as hyper-productivity, self-criticism, or perfectionism; or it could just be a feeling of “bleh.”

A few early risk factors for burnout at work:

  • Lack of enthusiasm/motivation
  • Imposter syndrome/second-guessing our instincts
  • Feeling like we can’t ask for help
  • Perfectionism / self-judgement
  • A short “fuse”
  • Inflexibility / resistance to change
  • Lack of agency/ownership
  • Disconnectedness / feeling ‘out-of-sync’ with coworkers

How can employers support mental health before it impacts performance?

By cultivating an environment where employees feel safe to be playful and take intelligent risks.

Mental wellness researchers from the Australian Minister’s Advisory Council advise that “Increasing the organisation’s focus on positive risk-taking” can help people self-manage their mental health and build resilience. Ironically, employers can mitigate their risk of poor performance due to mental health and burnout by encouraging positive risk within their teams.

What’s more, neuroscientists like Dr. Charles Limb of UCSF have found that creative improvisation is a hyper-effective framework for taking intelligent risks and in turn, supporting cognition, in a way that feels like play. When teammates improvise together, they practice skills to:

  • Connect authentically
  • Generate / experiment with new ideas
  • Accept help / build on others’ ideas
  • Apply intuition / past experiences
  • Reframe failure / dethrone “perfection”
  • Identify / lean into strengths

Which brings us back to where we started…

With the US Surgeon General swimming to a pretend island while his colleagues beckon “c’mere! c’mere!” We love it when a blog comes together…

So, if you’re a leader or working professional, ask yourself if you are cultivating an environment for your team that makes space for employees to step out of their comfort zones together, and perhaps more importantly, to do it with a sense of levity and play. Is your boss cultivating that space for you? Is your organization?

If not, don’t beat yourself up (see: dethroning perfection) — these aren’t things that we traditionally learn to prioritize in adulthood (see: mental health crisis). But, if experts like Dr. Murthy are to be believed, it’s well worth investing in.

“This is our chance to remake ourselves,” Murthy says. “[this is an] opportunity to fashion a stronger, more equitable, more resilient society.”




FLS+ helps teams and individauls flex their mental muscles through collaborative improvisation and play. Learn more at!