Burn out, researchers say, is not an individual matter

Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have been studying burnout for more than 30 years—here are the job factors they say most often lead to it.
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Grant Thomas

· 4 min read

The job stresses that lead to burnout, Christina Maslach, emerita professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, told HR Brew, can feel like pebbles in your shoe: “They are there all the time. They’re high frequency.” Before the day even starts, burnt-out employees are exhausted and cynical. They can feel overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, physically sick, and disillusioned with their jobs.

They’re also likely to feel alone as they try to cope.

Maslach, cocreator of the widely used Maslach Burnout Inventory, and her research partner, organizational psychologist Michael Leiter, often hear from employees who are desperate for solutions.

“There’s people contacting us and saying, ‘All we get is…‘Take care of yourself! Self care! Self care! Self care! Is there anything else? [Because] it’s not going very far here,’” Maslach said.

But Maslach and Leiter don’t believe workers can reverse burnout by taking PTO, setting work–life boundaries, or turning off notifications at night. Burnout, they argue in their new book, The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs, is not a disease—it’s a stress response. And coping, Maslach said, requires environmental changes.

The authors spoke with HR Brew about what job factors most often create high-burnout environments and how HR professionals can address them.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Why should we think about burnout in relation to a work environment?

Maslach: If we’re looking at those effects and trying to help people cope [with them], we’re not actually doing anything about preventing it from happening in the first place. If we’re really going to help people live a healthier and a more productive life and have things work better in the workplace, we need to be looking at why [burnout is] happening—not just who’s having it, but why is it occurring?...How do we fix both the job and the person so that there’s a little bit more of a supportive environment to help them thrive and grow and do well?

What are some of the job factors that can contribute to burnout?

Leiter: You can’t ignore workload—but what we find is that often it’s not the amount of work, per se, but it’s things like how much does that work spill over into your personal life and rob part of your personal time? Or how much [of your work is] just silly, a waste of time, or administrative.

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Maslach: There’s also control—how much autonomy and choice you have. Do you have to just do what somebody tells you and you can’t leverage [your knowledge] or make course corrections?...Another one is the positive feedback you get for doing a job well…Does anybody care that you really just did a great job? Pat you on the back, shake your hand, say thank you?

Then we have…socially toxic workplaces, where instead of having trust or support…there is distrust, there is vindictiveness, there’s incivility, there’s bullying, there’s harassment. People don’t feel psychologically safe in that kind of environment. And then fairness: Whatever the rules are, they are fairly administered to everybody.

And then finally, values, or the meaning of work—purpose.

I hear the word “toxic” a lot when we talk about workplaces. What does that actually mean?

Leiter: It’s the social dynamics…It can be you’re in a meeting, you’re contributing, and somebody just rolls [their] eyes and shakes their head. It doesn’t have to be aggressive nastiness, it can be quite subtle, but it’s undermining.

How should managers and HR start trying to diagnose the problems and implement solutions in their companies?

Maslach: We can just start with, “Folks, how are things going? What’s working well, what’s not working so well?” And particularly since we’ve come out of the pandemic, we may have a lot of ideas and experiences of what worked, what didn’t work. Maybe we could use some of those.

We also talk about an organizational checkup, just like you have a [medical] checkup…That’s a way of saying, “We care about this environment. We care about you. We’re trying to make it the best place for you to do the work we think you can do.”

So, using the checkup analogy—you identify a problem, then you decide on a course of treatment. What’s the treatment for burnout?

Leiter: Part of it is communicating back…You start to hear, here are the ideas people have—now, let’s go into those more deeply and see, are there ways that we can make this happen?

Maslach: We are trying to get people off of purely individualistic, “What’s wrong with you?” blame-the-victim kind of thinking, and [say], “You need to take the context, the job, and the social environment into account.”

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.