Burnout often has been viewed as an individual problem resulting from a person’s weakness and inability to cope. But Christina Maslach, who developed the scale used worldwide to measure burnout, and Michael Leiter, a consultant and adjunct professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., argue in The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs, that burnout is a mismatch between the job and the person.
The conditions and requirements set by managers, the workplace and the culture are out of sync with the needs of the people who work there, leading to undue, continual stress. While individuals could and should take action to improve their situation, organizations must also play their part, moving in steady, incremental and logical ways to reduce burnout in the workplace.
Doing so starts with understanding those mismatches better and the profiles of affected people you find around you because it’s not the same experience for everyone. The six types of burnout are:
- Work overload: This is what immediately springs to mind when burnout is mentioned. The individual’s burden is too great and unending, like Sisyphus, the Greek mythological character condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a hill. And there can be an additional emotional burden as well.
- Lack of control: Too often, people are denied the autonomy to do their jobs well, sometimes by being excluded from critical meetings relevant to their work, and they are suffering from controlling bosses.
- Insufficient rewards: People don’t feel they are receiving sufficient rewards – financially, socially or emotionally – for the hard and high-quality work they are doing.
- Breakdown of community: The always-on culture of fear poisons people’s relationships with their coworkers. Instead of being surrounded by a community of support, they feel others are only in it for themselves and willing to do anything to get ahead.
- Absence of fairness: Decisions are viewed as unjust, people are not treated with respect and various processes and outcomes are biased.
- Values conflict: People’s relationship to their work is contaminated by values conflicts, especially when job requirements clash with moral principles.
Most prescriptions for easing burnout start with reducing overwork. But work overload, while a huge issue, is not the only type of burnout.
We need to dig deeper to fully understand what is being experienced. Exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy are key – the three elements of the Maslach Burnout Inventory. People experiencing a high degree of those three elements are the classic burnout profile. Burnout begins with exhaustion; cynicism takes it to another level; and that, in turn, is compounded by inefficacy. “Work, instead of bringing great satisfaction, fulfillment and confirmation of one’s identity becomes a joyless burden to be minimized, avoided and escaped,” Ms. Maslach and Mr. Leiter write.
But there are four other profiles to keep in mind, scattered throughout the workplace. Overextended people are experiencing frequent exhaustion, but on the other dimensions – cynicisms and efficacy – are not in bad shape. They may seem burned out but aren’t. The major mismatch they face is a heavy workload.
The disengaged profile identifies people who are not exhausted and feel they are doing a good job. But they are consistently cynical and have lost the motivation that originally attracted them to this type of work.
Ineffective people may have energy and care about the social context of the job, but their work may seem trivial or unrewarding, or they might not see themselves as effective.
Finally, more optimistically, you have people who are the exact opposite of burned out – the engaged profile – who are engrossed with their work, have the positive energy to do the job, and feel effective.
All of that – the different types of burnout and different profiles – complicates the picture to the point your head may be spinning, but may make a solution more customizable and thus attainable.
Personally, it helps you to understand the mismatch you may be experiencing and what the causes are. If you oversee just a few employees, you may be better able to understand what’s wrong with some of them and what to do.
If you oversee many employees, the solutions lie in considering the six mismatches: Workload, control, rewards, community, fairness and values. Ms. Maslach and Mr. Leiter urge you to find some mismatches among your staff that can be improved or fixed, then prune it down to just one. “It is wiser to start small, with one achievable goal, to maximize the probability of achieving some success. After one win, you will be in a better position to move on to a second one,” they say.
Obviously the negative elements in the mismatch will offer clues as to how to tackle the problem. But you will still need to be careful, talking with people to get a handle on the right correctives to pursue. One office with a workload problem found the issue was not unrealistic demands or insufficient training or tools, but the many unexpected interruptions in the day and the need for quiet, protected time.
No, the solution is not easy. But burnout and the other syndromes identified by Ms. Maslach and Mr. Leiter are hurting your employees and your workplace, and you have a role to play in the new year and beyond.
- There is a fear that remote employees are becoming less engaged, but research into meetings since the pandemic began by Andrew Brodsky, a professor of management at the University of Texas, and Mike Tolliver, director of product management at Vyopta, suggests they aren’t. In fact, remote interactions are now more closely mirroring in-person interactions: More frequent but shorter, with fewer people, and more spontaneous.
- Most people think of demanding and supportive as opposite ends of a leadership spectrum: You can either be tough or nice. But venture capitalist Ravi Gupta says the best leaders – and the best parents and teachers – are demanding and supportive.
- It’s assumed that manual labourers suffer most when new technology arrives and that was certainly true from 1850 to 1970. But research by four academics found since that people doing cognitive tasks such as clerks, technicians and programmers have been heavily affected and when new inventions showed up employees who earned the highest salaries within the affected occupations and had the most advanced skills saw the biggest slowdowns in their wages.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.