You are not the (only) problem
The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs by Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter. Harvard University Press, 2022. 272 pp., $27.95
The canary played an important role in the life of coal miners. They brought canaries along with them to determine the health of the underground environment, as the birds would react to low levels of oxygen long before the workers felt them. When the environment turned toxic, the canary would warn them through its erratic behavior. Did the miners blame the canary for its poor self-care, warped perception, and bad habits? Of course not. They knew their work environment was the problem.
In today’s workplace, stress-induced burnout is a problem facing workers everywhere. Historically, we as a society have blamed individuals for their own burnout and have expected them to fix it. In The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, take a different view. They shift the responsibility for burnout to the mismatch between the individual and the work environment.
Burnout is complex. It is chronic workplace stress characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. The authors have been researching burnout for decades, using such tools as their Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). This assessment administers in-depth questions to subjects in a variety of fields regarding their perception of burnout and their understanding of its causes. Based on extensive research using the MBI, Maslach and Leiter have reached the conclusion that the cause of burnout is not just within each person, but is also ingrained in the workplace: “By taking a broader and more accurate view of the individual in context . . . the strong intersection of both individual and situational factors becomes far more evident,” they conclude.
Yes, the individual needs to develop coping techniques to avoid burnout. These include good health, plenty of sleep, relaxation, self-awareness, social support, skills development, and time away from work. Plenty has been written about all of these. What has not been sufficiently addressed, according to the authors, are the working conditions that also contribute to burnout.
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” is no longer the right approach. And learning to deal with the heat is helpful, but what is really needed is to turn down the heat. The authors’ research has found that the best way to do that is to ensure a good match between the job and the person. Finding what is wrong (and right) between the person and the situation can lead to a reduction in burnout in the workplace. The authors refer to this challenge as mismatches in workload, control, rewards, community, fairness, and values. Of these variables, the last one, values, is the primary culprit of burnout. When meaningfulness, trust and integrity are lacking in the workplace, burnout is a common consequence. In other words, “[Our research] has underscored that the match, or fit, between the person and these core aspects is the key to understanding burnout.”
In order to create a better match, Maslach and Leiter offer the solution of the three C’s of collaboration, customization, and commitment. This process begins with the identification of the area of mismatch through regular contact and better relationships, followed by pivoting to find positive matches that begin with attainable goals, and ending with a redesign of the workplace relationships to suit individual employee needs. For example, a manager sensing burnout in an employee could provide some cross-training to help the employee not just get some diversity in their work, but also provide that employee the opportunity to work with a different set of colleagues. This could possibly help the employee look at their work in a new light or even, possibly, could help find a position that fits better.
As the “Great Resignation” caused by the COVID pandemic has reached concerning heights, it is beneficial to look at the work environment from a different lens, rethinking how and why people work. Ensuring a match between the worker and the workplace requires diligent work of its own. There is strong evidence that we need to identify the intersection of both personal and situational factors to avoid burnout challenges.
Well-researched and clearly articulated, this book provides ample discussion of the causes of burnout, and does a great job identifying the causes and reasons for mismatches in the workplace. However, Maslach and Leiter provide limited analysis and few practical solutions. One or two additional chapters on the implementation of proper matching would have helped this reader with a realistic application for solving this challenge.
In my twenty years of running a company, I had to learn the hard way—and sometimes too late—that a work environment that provides release from the stress and challenge of serving demanding customers will help to prevent burnout. For example, I decided to organize biannual company retreats, during which we hashed over the demands of our jobs, got to know each other better, and brainstormed ways to serve both our clients and ourselves better. This activity had a positive impact on our stress levels. Today, as I teach future business managers, I make sure to incorporate training in situational leadership and emotional intelligence in order to alleviate stress and prevent burnout for all parties. This is not a simple task, but there are practical steps that managers can take to help bring joy to the workplace. This book reveals a number of these steps.
The Burnout Challenge will help managers everywhere better understand burnout. The lesson here is that we should not place the blame just on the individual but must take the work conditions into account as well. This book serves as a wise canary for workers and managers in any organization.
David Kee is associate professor of business at the Paul R. Carter College of Business at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. He teaches courses in management, strategy, economics and entrepreneurship at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
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