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Oct 26, 2022

It’s official. A scary tipping point has now been reached – one that says more Americans are ‘burned-out’ than not – a staggering 52% of them according to a recent study by Indeed.

What makes this finding so daunting for HRDs is the fact that burnout seems to be an ‘always-present’ sensation rather than a one off. And, it doesn’t seem to be restricted to a particular group of people either. Gallup’s own look into this phenomenon reveals 28% of American workers today describe themselves as ‘very often’ or ‘always burned out’ (up from 23% in 2016). Meanwhile, the same Indeed survey found that even though Millennials are the most affected by burnout (59%), Gen-Z (58%) and Gen-X (54%) are not far behind.

But what are organizations really to do about it? For many HRDs burnout is simply, and inextricably linked with staff working excessive hours. In other words, it’s regarded a form of physical exhaustion that can (apparently) be easily corrected.

But according to Christina Maslach, American social psychologist and professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, this assessment is far, far simplistic.

She argues burnout is often completely misunderstood by HR professionals, and in doing–so, so are the remedial actions they offer for it. Next month, her co-authored book ‘THE BURNOUT CHALLENGE: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs’ [Harvard University Press], explains why.

But in a TLNT exclusive, we speak to Christina ahead of its publication to hear a bit about what her book covers (and why HRDs need to rethink what they thought burnout really is):

Q: Your book’s main premise is that there are lots of contributors to burnout – not just over-working. Can you explain what they are?

A: “Our book challenges current assumptions about burnout. For too long it’s been seen to be either about the employee or the job, but it’s neither. It’s a mis-match between the two, and we have identified that this mismatches between workers and their jobs predicts burnout risk in six areas: work overload, lack of control, insufficient rewards, socially toxic workplace community, absence of fairness, and values conflict. In our model too much work – ie just getting stuff done by the skin of your teeth – is just one element now, and is not necessarily the main area HRDs should concentrate on. All six need to be taken in the whole.”

Q: It might surprise people to hear that burnout is more than just excessive workload. What’s the story here?

A: “Excessive workload doesn’t really say anything about the level of control or autonomy people have in their roles, or the positive feedback they might (or might not) get, or the community within which people’s work happens – such as the paths of other people they might cross or whether there’s negativity, bullying, or some level of toxicity in the workplace. It doesn’t say anything about whether there is fairness, and whether this builds cynicism and/or creates an erosion of one’s soul. What we’re saying is that all these things impact burnout and they need to be looked at in the whole, in addition to workload.”

Q: Why do psychological aspects impact burnout?

A: “Too much attention on burnout is focused on what the job is. But burnout is not exhaustion – it’s the stress response to it. The problem is as much with the term. ‘Burnout’ gets used to mean lots of different things. Yes, it’s a physical response, but there are also things that go with it – such as working in a hostile environment, and people not being able to feel good about themselves. It turns out that when we looked at what motivates people, it’s their core psychological needs that matter – ie whether people feel that they can we speak up about their workload, or whether they can raise issues, or whether they are subject to harassment or other forms of negativity. Burnout is more than being exhausted. We already have a perfectly good word for that – ‘exhausted!’ – so we really don’t need burnout to mean this too – especially when we establish that it is more than just exhaustion.”

Q: Does this mean HRDs have been getting burnout wrong all this time, and putting in the wrong interventions for tacking it?

A: “Quite possibly, yes. I do fear many organizations are following the wrong wellbeing strategies if they think that burnout is about tacking employees’ weaknesses instead of the structural things in their own organization that impact and contribute to burnout. Burnout is not intrinsically a medical condition. Too often burnout is trying to deal with the effect of things, rather than the source of it in the first place.”

Q: So where do things like ‘resilience’ sit with you?

A: “This is a perfect example of focusing on a coping technique rather than the source of the problem. Resilience training doesn’t change what the stressors are in organizations in the first place. When people say burnout is all about ‘self care’ this just isn’t the case, and it’s not looking at the context of people’s jobs; the environment they work in, or the job satisfaction they derive from it.”

Q: So should we just ditch the term burnout altogether, if it’s causing confusion now?

A: “We shouldn’t ditch it; we just need to understand it more. At the moment, there’s a muddying of the waters. To often we see the word added to other things, like ‘I’m burned out by the kids’; or ‘I’m burned out by my social life’ etc. The problem this creates for HRDs is that no one is being clear about what burnout means. What we should really be doing is resorting back to the World Health Organization’s definition of it – which is that it’s entirely an occupational phenomenon. That’s really what we need to remember. It’s job-burnout (nothing else), and it’s happening in the workplace. What we are finding though, is that if HRDs ‘can’ do something about it, they will create better environments within which people are expected to work. We should learn from what the pandemic really taught us – which is that people don’t just have to accept that their job is what it is. When Covid-19 struck we quickly learned that we ‘could’ modify work. That’s the thinking we need to keep going forward.”