Some 43% of US knowledge workers report they’re burned out, according to an August survey by Future Forum. That was a 16% increase from just three months earlier.
A lot of organizations’ understanding of this crisis and their responses to it are lacking. So it’s especially welcome that two psychologists behind pioneering work on burnout and the 1997 book The Truth About Burnout—Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter—are back with a timely sequel in The Burnout Challenge, out this week.
The term “burnout” is often used without precision about what this occupational phenomenon entails. People with burnout experience “crushing exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and alienation, and a sense of ineffectiveness,” the authors write, echoing the World Health Organization definition. Burnout “occurs when people experience combined crises on all three of these dimensions, most of the time.” (p. 3)
Their strong contention is that burnout is too frequently viewed as a problem of the individual experiencing it, when the workplace environment is often responsible. As a result, “coping strategies are good, but they are not enough,” Maslach and Leiter write. “We also need to focus on prevention strategies if we want to truly lower the risk of burnout. And that means changing the way we think about people in the workplace.” (p. 59)
Their view is that burnout is caused by a mismatch between an employee and a workplace. Maslach and Leiter identify six forms of mismatch:
- Work overload. This is when “the job demands are too many, the hours are too long, and the resources to handle them are too few.” (p. 87) Work overload can be remedied by recovering from hard work stretches with breaks and adequate sleep, more resources to meet the demands, and clearer boundaries between work and personal life.
- Lack of control. Worker frustration when they don’t have autonomy or flexibility in their work “is often a more serious issue for workers than workload per se,” Maslach and Leiter write. (p. 104) That’s partly because without control, people have a harder time navigating other mismatches as well. “With the capacity to participate in decisions or to make choices, people can adjust to whatever comes their way.” (p. 116) Supervisors play a crucial role in giving the appropriate range of control to the workers they manage.
- Insufficient rewards. Rewards can take the form of compensation, signs of appreciation from managers or colleagues, and intrinsic considerations like feelings of autonomy, belonging, and competence. When rewards are considered fair, or when the completion of daily work tasks is rewarding in itself, a mismatch is less likely.
- Breakdown of community. When asked what the best thing would be to help them avoid burnout, an “overwhelming majority” of people cited “one or more persons whom they could trust as a confidential confidante and to whom they could turn for advice or help when they needed it,” Maslach and Leiter write. (p. 139) They recommend that organizations trying to combat burnout start by focusing on reducing incivility in the workplace. “Disrespectful behavior has no benefits at work. And improving civility and respect in workplace cultures has a real benefit in itself, even beyond the risk of burnout.” (p. 18)
- Absence of fairness. When this is present, “decisions are viewed as unjust, people are not treated with respect, and various processes and outcomes are biased and discriminatory,” Maslach and Leiter write. (p. 22) They recount instances where employee awards were determined by favoritism or other arbitrary factors, creating major issues among the staff.
- Value conflicts. “Most employees do their best work when they believe in what they are doing and their daily work nourishes their integrity, pride, and self-respect,” Maslach and Leiter write. (p. 26.) When people feel that their organizations’ values are in conflict with their own, they’re more likely to experience burnout.
So how to best prevent and remedy burnout? One possible starting place is to survey workers about where they experience mismatches, or to create opportunities during regular meetings for them to raise such concerns. The Burnout Challenge helpfully includes a short survey that you can use to assess your own relationship with work. It also proposes using a social-science-research procedure called “the critical incident technique,” which involves asking people to share anecdotes of a time when a phenomenon such as fairness was especially supported or thwarted and then using that information to generate specific ideas for improvement.
In each of the areas of mismatch, the authors point to positive states that organizations should pursue:
- Sustainable workloads
- Ample choice and control
- Gratifying recognition and rewards
- Supportive work community
- Norms of fairness, respect, and social justice
- Well-aligned values and meaningful work
“The best way to prevent burnout in people is to design organizational processes that enable them to do their work effectively,” Maslach and Leiter write. (p. 93) They advise doing so with collaboration of all employees, customization to the industry and local culture, and commitment to follow through.
To be sure:
- The material in this book strongly echoes its 1997 predecessor—the six areas of mismatch that both books spend much of their pages on are seemingly identical.
- For a work by researchers, the book in places feels light on research beyond anecdotal accounts.
Memorable facts and anecdotes:
- Companies bragged about being “burnout shops” in their help-wanted ads during the early days of Silicon Valley, glorifying their all-out business sprints.
- Hospital nurses asked to classify coworkers’ behaviors said “rolling their eyes at me” was the worst.
- President John F. Kennedy was successful at connecting the daily work needed to put an American on the moon with an elevated purpose by narrowing the focus to one goal, describing it in specific terms with clear milestones, and using persuasive language. “Leaders are architects who motivate employees most effectively when they provide a structural blueprint that maps the connection between employees’ everyday work and the organization’s ultimate aspirations,” one research analysis of the lunar mission concluded. (p. 164)
- “For entirely too many people, work is an unpleasant place of cynicism and despair, and something to be endured rather than a source of satisfaction or pride.” (p. 2)
- “Burnout is an apt term, suggesting a once-hot fire that has been reduced to ashes: those ashes are the feelings of exhaustion and a lack of engagement left after an initial, internal flame of dedication and passion is extinguished. The accelerants are the workplace conditions creating too-hot environments and leaving behind this trifecta with its scorching effects on people’s lives.” (p. 4)
- “The short-term strategy of self-sacrifice and speed has become the long-term operating model for many businesses. As one consultant put it, ‘Everyone’s job is now an extreme job.’” (p. 11)
- “Most employees do their best work when they believe in what they are doing and their daily work nourishes their integrity, pride, and self-respect.” (p. 25)
- “Burnout should be considered a characteristic of work groups, rather than simply an individual syndrome.” (p. 29)
- “Do all workers experience burnout? No. Do some workers have other work experiences? Yes. But to draw the conclusion that the world can therefore be divided into two groups of workers—those who are burned out and those who are not—would be simple-minded.” (p. 51)
- “Doing a good job and feeling good about doing it—this is a great way of expressing the core goal of promoting a good job-person match.” (p. 82)
- “An important yet often overlooked part of organizational culture is the emotional tone of the workplace. What is the overall feeling of being there? Is it joyful, energized, tense, dispirited?” (p. 119)
- “For most employees, their direct supervisor functions as their point of contact with management. What happens in those encounters puts to the test how aligned an organization’s espoused values are with its values in action. For management those encounters are the channel through which people reveal if they are actively engaged with the workplace.” (p. 134)
- “The basic challenge for any change effort…no matter how positive the goal, is that ‘things get worse before they get better.’ This is a universal truth that needs to be explicitly recognized and prepared for.” (p. 182)
- “The time has come to rethink how and why people work, and how to make workplaces environments in which all workers can thrive.” (p. 217)
The bottom line is that The Burnout Challenge provides readers with a structured approach to identifying workplace conditions responsible for burnout, and suggesting ways to resolve them. The core material is highly similar to Maslach and Leiter’s earlier book, but—to their credit and sadly, given burnout is still chronic—The Burnout Challenge remains highly relevant to workplaces today.
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