Christina Maslach, psychology professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley and coauthor of the new book The Burnout Challenge, was a recent guest on The Ken Blanchard Companies’ LeaderChat podcast.
In looking back on more than four decades of research into the topic, Maslach shared that while she is glad people have been talking more about burnout recently, she notices that many seem to focus on the effects of burnout without reflecting much on its cause or how to prevent it.
As she explains, “It's important to change the perspective on this topic and make clear what is going on. If you simply help people cope with the stressors that cause burnout, you're being helpful and thoughtful but you're not actually preventing burnout. In the long run, we need to create better ways for designing the workplace so that there is a greater match and a greater fit between people and what they're doing.”
Focusing on the long run is important, says Maslach, because burnout is caused by chronic stressors as opposed to the occasional stressors everyone experiences at work.
“Chronic means high frequency all the time or most of the time. We know from work on stress and coping that it is much harder for people to recover from chronic stressors than from occasional emergencies or acute stressors. You really need to be able to relax, get back to your normal life, recover, and then go forward.”
Not dealing with chronic stressors leads people down a three-step path to burnout that begins with exhaustion, says Maslach. But that’s not the whole story.
“People sometimes think burnout is just when you're tired or overwhelmed with work. But with burnout, two other things happen. One is that there is an increase in negative, hostile cynicism or a mental distance from one's job—you know, ‘take this job and shove it.’ People start changing how they do their job. Instead of trying to do their very best, they're doing the bare minimum.
“The third part is that it's not just being negative about the job. You begin to develop a negative sense of your own effectiveness on the job. What's wrong with me? Why can't I handle it? Maybe I've made a mistake going into this career?
“It's that trifecta of exhaustion, cynicism, and professional ineffectiveness that really constitutes a full burnout response to the work.”
For individuals charged with looking to address burnout issues in their work group, Maslach recommends seeing the problem as an organizational issue instead of a personal failing.
“People often focus on burnout as an individual issue rather than a social or communal organizational issue. The thrust of our book is talking about better matches between people and their jobs. It's more of a we problem, not just an individual me problem.
“When you frame the question in terms of only the individual and their situation, you're not asking questions about what’s in the job environment that is creating chronic stressors. If we make modifications to job conditions, that's going to affect a lot of other people, not just one individual. There’s been a tendency to focus on helping the individual cope, which is fine, but that leaves out the other part of how to prevent burnout from occurring in the first place. It requires a broader focus, beyond the individual.”
To improve organizational work environments, Maslach recommends starting with collaboration and communication. All levels of leadership—from first line managers all the way up to the C-suite—need to hear about and understand what's going on. What are some of the issues and problems? How do we go forward to alleviate some of these chronic job stressors?
“Leaders at every level need to discuss what needs to be changed and share ideas for improving the match in control or improving the match in reward or in values. In past decades we called this ‘walk around’ leadership—where leaders can get a sense of whether everyone’s on the same page in terms of trying to figure out something better.”
Next, Maslach suggests a focus on customizing and committing.
“The solution is not a one size fits all. It must be customized to who we are, what we're doing, and the kind of jobs we have. Commitment is about how we'll keep working on this until we get it right. It’s not a one-day thing, it's not a weekend thing, it's not a quickie workshop. It's putting something in place that people agree on.
“The overall goal is to create a better job environment that will produce better outcomes at all levels. When it's functioning well, the workers are going to thrive and the workplace is going to succeed. And that's the kind of the win-win situation we want to achieve.”
To learn more about Maslach’s recommendations for addressing burnout and explore her new book, written with her longtime fellow researcher Michael Leiter, visit www.theburnoutchallenge.com. To hear Maslach’s complete interview on the Blanchard LeaderChat podcast, click here.