Feeling burned out at work? It’s not your fault, psychologists say in new book

Published on Nov 16, 2022 08:55 PM IST

Authors of The Burnout Challenge argue it’s an organizational problem — and not too expensive to fix.

In The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs — published 25 years after their first book about the phenomenon— psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter want to set the record straight about why employees get fed up with work. (UNSPLASH)
In The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs — published 25 years after their first book about the phenomenon— psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter want to set the record straight about why employees get fed up with work. (UNSPLASH)
Bloomberg | | Posted by Parmita Uniyal

A new book has a reassuring message for workers experiencing burnout: It isn’t your fault. In The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs — published 25 years after their first book about the phenomenon— psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter want to set the record straight about why employees get fed up with work. (Web story: How to prevent burnout)

In short: “Burnout is a management issue,” Leiter said.

Since Maslach developed the first scientifically validated assessment in 1981 and her first book on the topic was published with Leiter in 1997, awareness of burnout has increased dramatically. In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” During the pandemic, burnout skyrocketed not just among health-care professionals and frontline workers, but also among office employees suddenly stuck at home. Now, the concept is so ubiquitous it means “anything you feel like you can’t deal with anymore or don’t want to deal with anymore,” Maslach said. “‘Chardonnay’ burnout, ‘pilates’ burnout, ‘midlife-crisis’ burnout.”

The authors say the reason we blame the individuals experiencing burnout instead of their employers may boil down to a simple psychology concept that says humans are predisposed to attribute problems to a person’s actions or personality rather than to their environment. To help refocus the conversation, Maslach and Leiter identify six elements of work that contribute to burnout if improperly managed: workload, control, rewards, community, fairness and values. Many workplace issues are like “pebbles in your shoe” — persistent, but ultimately solvable, Maslach said.

Often, conversations with executives about how to improve workplaces fall apart for economic reasons or because managers think it would require monumental changes, Maslach said. “It’s usually, ‘Well, we can’t afford it. We’re going to have to do more with less,’” she said.

Executives also have the deeply ingrained idea that chronic workplace stress is unavoidable, that pushing for “more with less” is necessary to meet financial goals. The research doesn’t support that: Chronic stressors have severe negative impacts on wellbeing and health, leading to billions of dollars in health-care costs and lost productivity across industries, Maslach said.

Ultimately, Maslach and Leiter are hopeful. The world seems much more receptive to their research now after the pandemic shredded so many assumptions about the way work happens — five days in the office, for example. To underscore that jobs should conform to an individual’s needs rather than the other way around, Maslach and Leiter draw a comparison with the canaries that coal miners once used to identify carbon monoxide and other dangerous gases.

“Should we try fixing the canary to make it stronger and more resilient — a tough old bird that could take whatever conditions it faced?” the book’s introduction asks. “Or should we fix the mine, clearing the toxic fumes and doing whatever else necessary to make it safe for canaries (and miners) to do their work?”

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.
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