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By: Kim Strom, Director of UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Ethics and Policy
picture of UNC students walking on campusI’m taking a little detour from the use of this space to examine the possibility of shared values at UNC. Instead, I want to talk about what happens when people can’t live their values.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education described some reasons for the employee exodus from academia: unreasonable work demands, emotional exhaustion, insufficient resources, and a tone-deafness to employee pain that the author calls “mission-based gaslighting”.

In my area of research, the term for those conditions is moral distress, or more poignantly work-related moral suffering. The concept of moral distress originated in the field of nursing in the 1980s and it broadly describes situations in which a person feels powerless to take an action that they know to be right. Moral distress may result from resource constraints (lack of time, staff, services, or budget to work safely and effectively), a lack of support (poor structures or supervision to deal with ethical conflicts) and the inability to impact challenging political, social, administrative, or clinical conditions.

Moral distress can manifest itself in physical, psychological, and organizational symptoms. Cumulative effects of moral distress include job withdrawal (absenteeism, working strictly to role), loss of passion for the job or the organization, and resignation or career change.

What can we do about moral distress? Having a name for the experience can help. It can break down isolation, mobilize moral courage, encourage research into the phenomenon, and stimulate work-group support. To paraphrase a founding mother of social work, though, we need to stop pulling people out of the ditch and fill in the ditch. That means addressing the root causes that give rise to moral distress and the feelings of powerlessness it represents. In that environment, values such as community, transparency, integrity, and accountability can be powerful forces to align the energy and efforts of the Carolina Community.

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