More Than Burnout

One might pick up The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships With Their Jobs and assume, if only from the title, that it is pop psychology. We have all seen these volumes in business or self-help sections of bookstores: burnout, balance, and a few bits of general advice for workers after the pandemic. The media is rife with this story or that study that’s supposed to explain peoples’ relationships with their jobs. Experts weigh in with pithy observations, portentous forecasts and snap judgments. That initial assumption about The Burnout Challenge, happily, would be wrong.

This is a wise book, a thoughtful study of work in the 21st century by two very smart and seasoned academics, Christine Maslach and Michael P. Leiter. Christine Maslach is an emerita professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley. She invented the Maslach inventory and she’s been recognized by the National Academy of Science. Maslach has been studying workplaces and burnout for decades. Michael P. Leiter was professor of organizational psychology at Deakin University in Australia. He was also a research chair at Acadia University in Canada, and he consults regularly. Together the pair present a wealth of research, experience and straight out thoughtful guidance when it comes to thinking about burnout. Interestingly, burnout is not the the key issue with which to examine work. Instead, it rests on better knowledge of workplace health.

Opening the book with some attention grabbing statistics, the authors note that the vast majority of workers rate their jobs as mediocre or bad. Study after study shows that our society is rife with unhappy workers who view their place of employment as unpleasant, as something to be endured. The contrast between what employers like to trumpet – community, values and care – and what workers experience could not be more stark. The authors, who consistently reference research, build arguments from data and facts. Burnout is not a new phenomenon. It is the popular term for a combination of factors: worker exhaustion, worker ineffectiveness, and worker cynicism. In fact, it has been studied for more than a hundred years.

Digging deeper, the authors summarize research that indicates key causes of worker unhappiness. Burnout and/or poor workplace health is the result of problems in six areas: 1) work overload (unsustainable demands), 2) lack of control (employee agency is missing or undermined), 3) insufficient rewards (more than money – this is about acknowledgment), 4) breakdown of community in the workplace, 5) absence of fairness (are decision arbitrary or capricious?), and 6) value conflicts (is the organization doing things that the employee endorses?). These factors figure significantly in employees’ evaluations of their work.

The authors note that these categories are about more than employees’ feelings. Of equal importance in the concept of matching particularly employees with particular workplace. The authors emphasize this again and again. It is human nature to think of burnout as an employee problem. They stress that it is a workplace issue. When thinking of the canary in the coal mine, we don’t imagine stronger canaries as the solution to the problem. Instead, we think about what can be done to make the mine safe. Burnout, they underscore, is about making a safer and better workplace.

Taking a look at a variety of workplaces, the authors stress that work is more often a marathon than a sprint. However, many organizations and cultural practices emphasize high-intensity work as a way to achieve outcomes. The mantra is that “Business is always on” means that so, too, are the business’s employees. The absence of space away from work and the psychic costs can be extremely harmful to workplace health. Along like lines, the lack of agency in how and when one does their work undermines an employee’s belief in self-worth. If an employee cannot make a change or make a difference, they disengage. When employees feel that the organization does not acknowledge them, which is a recurring complaint in many organizations, workers voice feelings of discouragement. The book stresses that it is well neigh impossible to build a sense of workplace community if these challenges are present.

Maslach and Leiter also examine how employees complain about workplace unfairness – which is a common concern – and how questions about the organization’s values challenge workplace health. Depending upon organization and sector, these can be extremely difficulty problems to address. The book underscores that people do their best work in supportive environments where they are treated fairly. That may seem to make sense. Surveys of businesses and organizations across America indicate, though, that it is far from the norm. 

Informing the book is the development and results from the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). The creation of the authors, the MBI has been used in many organizations for many years. From the data and experience with the MBI, the authors explain that at the organizational level, management often interprets burnout as the problem of a single employee or unit. When organizations attempt to address, they also often seek medical/health approaches, such as counseling. Maslach and Leiter stress that it usually takes multiple efforts before organizations understand and appreciate that burnout is a consequence of larger workplace issues. They insist that organizations must asking employees questions honestly, take employee responses seriously, and follow up with integrity if the issue is to truly be addressed. In addition, the authors emphasize that even small changes can make for a big difference in how employees rate their workplace environment.

Current studies indicate that burnout affects 10-20% of employees. The engaged employee stands in contrast. Engaged employees are often about a third of a workforce. The authors’ research indicates a few other key categories of employees, clustered by their relationship with their work. They identify ineffective employees, overextended employees, disengaged workers, with those in most distress as “burned out.” Their analysis emphasizes that the matching of different kinds works with different kinds of workplaces leads to these clusters.

Maslach and Leiter also stress that there is no one solution to burnout. It is not about initiatives, better food at the cafeteria, increased compensation or employee parties. The authors write repeatedly that if one truly cares about burnout and employee health, one has to look at the canary and at the mine.

Above and beyond suggestions for individual employees – which are common sense – the book makes many different proposals on how managers might better understand their employees and the issue of burnout. They stress building trust, finding small wins, getting employee voice and taking seriously – all of which aligns with many leading business and management theories. What makes The Burnout Challenge a special book is that it is grounded in research and data.

For those of us who work in higher education, the book has a direct benefit and poses a challenge. It clearly offers a means to better understand our college campuses as workplaces. More broadly, though, The Burnout Challenge made me think of the academy and its inconsistent attention to the workplace as a site of inquiry. The aim of most college graduates is to find a job and craft a career. The aim of most colleges and universities is to graduate students so that they can find employment and lead a successful career. On one level, we all appear to be on the same page. On a different level, though, our ability to systematically unpack the workplace and help students understand it is a major opportunity. It is difficult to imagine many undergraduates ever encountering The Burnout Challenge in formal setting. Maybe in an upper level business course, or perhaps a sociology or psychology class, but most students, I would propose, would never find this book as part of their assigned reading.

Moreover, as I was thinking about the authors’ research, would students encounter other rigorous studies of workplaces? Probably not. We, as educators, spend much energy trying to get students into workplaces. Yet it is rare that we give students much knowledge about what they will encounter in their workplaces. Perhaps this is not just a book for managers. It could be a book for current and future employees, maybe even our students.

David Potash

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