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February 18, 2019

Understanding Job Burnout

By IT Revolution
Dr. Christina Maslach

The following is an excerpt from a presentation by Dr. Christina Maslach, Professor of Psychology (Emerita) and a researcher at the University of California (Berkeley,) titled “Understanding Job Burnout.”

You can watch the video of the presentation, which was originally delivered at the 2018 DevOps Enterprise Summit in Las Vegas.


About 20 years ago, some colleagues and I were called by Sweden. They said, “We’re having this crisis in some of our workplaces. Please come over and help us because we think it might be this thing called burnout. We’re not really sure.”

So we went over, and it turned out that there’s a social insurance system for everybody who works in Sweden. If you are going out on sick leave or some sort of disability, and you leave your job, they’ll pay your salary for up to a year and a half. They put you in treatment for whatever it is you need, and after the year and a half, you go back to your original job.

What they were seeing was this sharp increase in the number of people going out on sick leave from the healthcare field and from IT. They were particularly concerned because when they looked at the diagnosis, it was severe clinical depression work-related only. They’d say, “It sounds like burnout, that it’s depression but only work-related.” As my colleagues and I, looked at the data and we saw that “Well, actually, we think maybe burnout happened upstream, before this. You now have a problem with severe clinical depression, and that’s what you’ve got to treat, but there was probably a warning sign that people weren’t paying attention to, or didn’t know about, earlier on.”

It got a lot of attention in the press. We were being interviewed. Our photos were in the paper. Every time I would go out on a break and walk around in the streets of Stockholm there would be people.

You could see this whispering and pointing, and after a while, somebody would come up, tap me on the shoulder and say, “Are you the burnout woman from the United States? We saw you in the paper.”

I’d say, “Yes, yes.”

They’d say, “Well, just wanted to tell you, I’m one of those people who’s going out on leave that they’re talking about.”

And I’d say, “Okay. Anything else you want to share?”

They’d say, “I don’t want to go back to that job.”

That was really interesting to me. Even though they were going to get their salary, they were going to be away from work, they were going to get treatment, it wasn’t worth it to them. The price was too high. They did not want to go back to that job.

What we had learned from the research was, that the job was way more important for understanding what happens with burnout or engagement with work than the individual’s characteristics, like personality, or where you came from, etc.

What’s Happening Now? What are We Seeing?

I’ve been studying this for several decades, and the workplace today is not really what it used to be several decades ago.

We’re not seeing as many people doing full-time work. There is less concern and investment from employees in various ways. There’s more destructive competition. I cannot tell you how many people talk about socially toxic workplaces, where you don’t trust anybody because they’re going to try and throw you under the bus and get rid of you as competition.

You don’t ever say things like “I’m tired,” “I don’t know the answer to this problem,” “I wish I had some advice,” or “I’m feeling depressed.”

That would be showing your weak side, and you can’t do that.  And there are tactics that talent get rewarded for things, but not everybody else. People feel like they’re getting shut out of opportunities.

The Burnout Shop

If anybody ever says “I invented the word burnout” for this stress response, it’s not true. Nobody invented it. It’s been around for a long, long time. It emerged as the language of the people.

I’m the daughter of an engineer who worked in the NASA space program at one point. I know we would hear the word ‘burnout’ all the time. Rocket boosters burn out. My favorite example is ‘ball bearings burn out’. The reason these occur is because of an abrasive environment without a key resource, which is oil, to make it function well. There is an analogy here to what we’ve learned about burnout in the workplace.

Likewise, in the early days of Silicon Valley, we were hearing a lot about the Burnout Shop. People were trying to hire, saying, “We are the Burnout Shop. We don’t want just type A people. We want type A+++ people.”

The Burnout Shop was really a startup. It was a sprint for the very short term. It was basically we own you, you have no life. When we call, you come, and you’re going to work and work until you have nothing left to give. But then you’ll have stock options, you’ll get a lot of money, and you’ll be fine. That was the trade-off.

Interestingly, what I think we’re seeing more and more of now this has become the business model in a lot of occupations. We’re seeing it in healthcare. We’re seeing it in social services. We’re seeing it in education. It’s now a marathon, and the sprint model is still being used in terms of self-sacrifice. You have to give up time. You have to give up other things in your life, in order to do this.

The Problem of Unhealthy Jobs

But we don’t always see the metrics taking account of what some of the costs are of this. The health problems, physical exhaustion. We’ve had some publicity recently about sleep deprivation and what that does to you. Not good. Disruptions to personal life, loss of self-worth, depression, anxiety, and suicide, or suicidal ideation.

This is the price that people are paying to work in these kinds of environments. We’re seeing it as a more regular model. The assumption often is that people who burn out aren’t as good as those who don’t.

In fact, I’ve talked to managers and CEOs who’ll say, “Burnout is wonderful.” I’ll say, “Why do you say that?” I mean, there are all the costs etc. and he’ll say, “Because they burn out. It means they weren’t so good. They’re not working well now, and they’re quitting, saving me the job of having to fire them. So it’s very good. It cleans the house, and I don’t have to spend much time on it.”

In fact, that’s not the case. This is data that has all been pulled together and analyzed in a new book out by Jeff Pfeffer from the Stanford Business School called Dying for a PaycheckWe know that there are lots of very toxic and highly stressful job conditions. We know that they pose a real danger to people’s health and wellbeing. There’s a lot of statistics on that. But we’re always hearing that we have to pay the price, this is the way to be financially successful, and so forth.


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His analyses of the data that are looking at is, it doesn’t enhance productivity. It doesn’t necessarily help the bottom line. It’s a lose-lose kind of proposition.

It’s interesting because it echoes things that were happening in Japan not too many years ago, where they’re talking about karōshi, death from overwork, heart attacks, strokes. Now they have a term karo jisatsu, which means suicide from overwork. We’ve got some real issues here, in terms of this.

Job-Person Fit in 6 Strategic Areas

If there’s one image that I’m talking about today that I hope you remember, it’s this — we have found that the fit, the match, or the balance between a person and the job, is critical for burnout in six areas. They are not listed in order of importance. They’re listed in order of which one people think of first.

  1. Workload is the one that everybody thinks of first. It must be they’re working too hard. They’re stressed out. The imbalance between too many demands, too few resources to get it done. But there are five other areas that turn out to be just as important.
  2. Control. In other words, how much autonomy you have in your work, how much choice, or discretion to figure out how to do it the best way or innovate in some way.
  3. Reward. People think of things like salary, benefits, perks, et cetera. We’re finding in the research that social reward is sometimes more important, that other people notice that they appreciate what you do and let you know that you’ve done something that’s really meaningful.
  4. Community. These are all the relationships that you have at work, with other colleagues, your boss, clients, whoever. Are those relationships functioning well? Are they supportive? Do you trust? Do you have ways of working out disagreements and figuring out how to move forward, work together well on teams, et cetera.
  5. Fairness. This turns out to be a very important one. Is whatever the policy is, whatever the practices are, here in this place, are they fairly administered in terms of who gets the opportunity? Are there glass ceilings, or discrimination, or other things that block people from moving forward when they should have that chance?
  6. Values. Which sometimes turns out to be one of the most important. This is meaning. This is why am I doing this. Why am I here? What do I care about? What is important to me, in terms of what I think is important for our society, the contributions I make, and so forth? With burnout, it’s not just about being exhausted and working too hard and being tired. It’s often that the spirit, the passion, the meaning is just getting beaten out of you, as opposed to being allowed to thrive and grow.

These six areas offer entry points into what we could could be doing differently, that might actually create a better, healthier, improved workplace to support the things we want to achieve.

When I’ve asked people about what’s a good day looks like for them, they can’t tell me anything good that’s happened. The best days are when nothing bad happens. That’s a depressing standard.

If we take a look at how community breaks down, people talk a lot about socially toxic workplaces. They’re in the “I love the work, I think I’m good at it, but I cannot stand being around these people and all the politicking” camp. It’s who you know rather than how well you do, etc.

For the absence of fairness and value conflicts, people are being asked to do unethical things, being asked to do things that they think are really wrong, or getting caught in binds.

The more the mismatches you have, the more likely we are to see a risk of burnout down the road, a year later, or two years later. It doesn’t mean that all of them have to be in perfect shape. Not at all. People can tolerate a lot of mismatches if there are some that are really, really important to them. This is giving us a better picture now of how people function and why and what we can do.

Burnout as a Stress Phenomenon

Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic situational stressors on the job. Now, I want to emphasize chronic here. It’s not a response to an acute crisis or an emergency, etc. It’s the everyday stuff that begins to wear people down to the point where they’re saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be here anymore.” From the research, we’ve identified three overlapping but not completely the same dimensions.

  • One is the stress response, which is known as exhaustion. This is like, “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t think straight. I want to go home, and I’ve still got more going on.”
  • Next is cynicism. Which for me, the heart of, really, burnout. It’s not just you’re working too hard, but you’re getting to the point where you’re saying, “Take this job and shove it!” Here you begin to get negative and hostile and cynical about the other people, the place, what’s going on, and people start changing how they work. Rather than trying to do their very best, they’re trying to do the bare minimum. What is the least I need to do and still have the job and get out of here with a paycheck?
  • Finally, the third one is negative self-evaluation. You’re feeling not great about yourself. Maybe I’m not really good at this. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. I shouldn’t be here. People talk about the erosion of my soul. That’s an interesting phrase that comes up a lot, that there’s no future perhaps for me. I’m stuck. I can’t. What am I going to do in the future?

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Research Measure of Burnout (MBI)

Together these come up in different patterns. The research measure that I developed many years ago, the Maslach Burnout Inventory, was used to study what the causes and effects of this were and what can we do about it.

People are often using it as a diagnostic tool now. It measures the three dimensions, but it doesn’t ask you to agree/disagree or yes/no. It says, “How often do you feel like this?” When people are at a higher risk of burnout, they are reporting scores of 5 or 6. I feel like that several times a week or I feel like that every day. It’s like saying, “Every day I’m feeling burned out. I’m feeling like I can’t deal with it anymore. I don’t want to deal with people anymore.”

We don’t add all of these scores up into a single score because different patterns would yield the same total. It doesn’t make sense. But we are using more sophisticated data analysis tools right now to give us profiles and patterns. Other people are trying to simplify it and say it’s “only exhaustion” or there’s a cutoff score, you’re either burned out or you’re not. But I think this isn’t actually a good way of talking about it.

Five MBI Profiles of Work Experience

What we’ve been finding so far is there are at least five distinct profiles.

  1. Burnout. You have three essentially negative scores: high on exhaustion, high on cynicism, high on that professional inefficacy. Which equals I’m not really good at this, I’m not feeling good about it.
  2. Disengaged. Here there is only one high negative score, and that’s on cynicism.
  3. Overextended. Here’s one profile people talk about a lot, it has one high negative score only on exhaustion. Some people use that as a proxy for burnout. It’s exhaustion. Burnout is exhaustion, and if they’re high on exhaustion, end of story.
  4. Ineffective. You have a high negative score in Inefficiency. You’re not feeling good about yourself.
  5. Engagement. The final profile is that you’re not scoring high on any of those three. You’re actually looking pretty good, and we’re talking about these people as more engaged with work.

Burnout is the Canary in the Coal mine

I used to talk about burnout as a red flag that warns you that something is going wrong in the workplace. Let me change that a little bit and say that it’s more like the canary in the coal mine.

The canary in the cage goes down in the coal mine, and if the canary is having trouble breathing and functioning, it’s a sign to you that the workplace, the mine, is dangerous. Too many toxic fumes, you’d better not send people down there. It’s a warning sign, and this is really what burnout is in a sense. It’s a warning sign of a toxic work environment, and what you should be doing is saying, “What is going on to cause so many problems among people who work here?”

What you don’t want to do is try and make the bird tougher and more resilient and “it can take it!” You know, “If you can’t stand the toxic fumes, you shouldn’t work here.” Again, it’s a sign that it could get worse. You don’t want to go there because it’s harder to treat people at that point.

When I was in Sweden we were talking about problems occurring upstream and one of the psychiatrists that we were working with said, “Ah, it reminds me of a fable.” The fable is this, people are walking out in the forest. They’re walking by a river, going over to a waterfall. All of a sudden they spot a little baby in the water that’s being pushed along and is heading towards the waterfall. They say, “Oh my god, we’ve got to rescue this child!” Run in and take the child out. They get off and they look. “Oh, there’s another one!” It’s coming down the water. Race into the water to rescue it. Then more, and then more. They’re calling people, “Come help! Help! We’re going to rescue these children.”

Suddenly, a couple of people leave and start running away. The rest of the people say, “Where are you going? We’ve got to rescue these kids!” They yell back, “We’re trying to find the bastards who are throwing them in!”

The thing is, further upstream may be where your problem is and not simply when it gets really difficult at this point.

Fitting People to the Job

We fit people to the job by training them, by educating them, giving them experience. “Here’s what you have to do. Here’s what you have to learn.”

We also fit people to the job by helping them cope with stressors. If that heat is getting too much, what do you do? Get enough sleep, eat the right things, meditate, yoga. There are tons of ideas out there as to what to do.

Plus we also give them a lot of the coping mechanisms that fall into the category of ‘don’t go to work.’ Think about that. We’re saying that some of the best ways you can fit the job is by not showing up. Be absent, take a vacation, go home. There’s something to say about the workplace, really. What’s happening there?

These individual solutions, helpful as they are, don’t change the job. They don’t make it less toxic. What we need to be thinking about is more how do you fit the job to people. What are the work conditions that actually are causing an unhealthy workplace and that are having negative effects on people? How could those be changed in some way?

The answers are nothing new, taking a look at ergonomics, and look at the relationship between workers and their physical environment. We figure out how human beings are built, how they’re made, and how they sit to do different things, then ask how can you change the design? You adjust for how people think and what they’re more likely to notice and so forth.

How do we apply that design model to the social and psychological environment? In other words, how do we think about workplaces that are helping people become more motivated, to be more committed and innovative?

Could we use that same kind of design principle, not just for physical, but how do you make a workplace where people thrive rather than getting beaten down, where they provide a better return on the investment you make on them?

What Creates a Person-Job “Fit”

If you start focusing on the social/psychological things, it turns out that when people feel that these core needs are satisfied, at home, at work, wherever they will feel more motivated. They will feel more positive about whatever it is they’re doing.

There are seven core needs.

  1. Autonomy. The sense of some control and choice over what I do.
  2. Belongingness. that I am part of a larger thing, an important thing, whether it’s a school, or a team, or a unit, etc.
  3. Competence. What is it that tells me that I am good at this and I’m really feeling assured of what I’m doing?
  4. Positive emotions. We want to have things that make us feel good, periodically, that we celebrate, that we laugh about, that we have some great things here.
  5. Psychological Safety.
  6. Fairness. As I mentioned before.
  7. Meaning. The values again.

What the research showings us is that these might be the kinds of things we have to take into account as we’re designing better workplaces that support people.

Six Paths to a Healthy Workplace

If we go back to those six paths that I mentioned before of a healthy workplace, what might that look like, in positive terms? What are the positive goals that we would move towards? Here are some that we’ve been putting together with healthcare systems.

  • A sustainable workload. It’s not about working hard or not, working long hours or not, but is it something that can be sustained, is there time to recover, get the rest, before you go back in and do more? What supports that?
  • Choice and control.
  • Recognition and reward.
  • A supportive work community. This doesn’t mean you all agree, but you have a way of working out conflicts and disagreements and figure out how to move forward. People know how to trust, who they can go to for advice, mentorship, et cetera.
  • Fairness, Respect, social justice.
  • Clear values and meaningful work.

A Success Story

Just to give you a sense that it can be done, this is one of the first organizations that I worked with. It was about 1,000 people. It was not healthcare. It was a variety of administrative services for a large corporation.

I’m showing you the mean scores when we started, with people on the six areas, and they focused on the fact that ‘fairness’ was looking much more negative than for that occupation as a whole.

They decided to make changes, asking, “What is unfair?” and the CEO was shocked. “What do you mean we’re unfair? What are we doing?” Well, a lot of things, it turned out. Including a distinguished service award that people hated because even though it paid extra money, it was so unfair in terms of who got chosen to get the award. It was the leader of the team but not the whole team. It was you had to be nominated by your supervisor, and if he or she couldn’t be bothered with doing this stuff, you would never be eligible, et cetera.

They went in and began to change these things. A year later, here’s what they looked like.

They had turned the fairness issue around. There was a ripple effect, and that’s very common. It’s finding a place to begin to make it a little bit better, to build some optimism, to build some hope. “Hey, we changed that stupid award. Now we got a good one. What could we do next time?”

Then sending this information back to the people who generated it. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of communication with everybody and being sure you’re getting good input from everyone. And now they do this process every year.

Six Strategic Paths

It turns out there are lots of possibilities, starting in any one of these six areas, to create a better fit between people and their job. They can be small, inexpensive, and customizable. In some cases, they are things that you don’t have to ask a higher up for permission to do.

You don’t have to get more money. You don’t have to redesign things for the 21st century. There are ways in which people can take more control of the work, working together in a more socially positive, trusting kinds of ways, that actually lead to a reduction in burnout, better engagement, less absenteeism, fewer negative outcomes. Basically, when you start doing this kind of work, what we’re seeing is a healthier workplace.

Final note, I should say that the burnout shop as we’re seeing it today is not viable, it’s not a desirable future for our workplaces, or for our people there. We have a new interdisciplinary center at Berkeley, where I am now working with people I’ve never worked with before, like architects, and people from economics and so forth, and we’re trying to figure out a better way of feeling out everybody has a piece of the workplace puzzle, so we can do something better than we have before.


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