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Burnout: The organizational phenomenon leaders must address

A person feeling burned out while working remotely, with their head down and a hand by closed eyes.

Have you ever gone hiking and had a small rock lodged in your shoe that continued to irritate you until it caused a blister? That small rock is akin to burnout. In a recent interview with researcher Dr. Christina Maslach from University of California, Berkeley, she compared the drivers of burnout to pebbles in one's shoe. If they aren’t removed, they will cause a problem.

So what is burnout? Dr. Maslach has been studying the phenomenon for decades. In her research, she has found burnout to be a response to prolonged exposure to job stressors and includes three components:

  • Exhaustion: The feeling of being overextended and exhausted by one’s work.
  • Cynicism: Indifference or a distant attitude toward your work.
  • Inefficacy: Lack of satisfaction with past and present accomplishments and the feeling that you are unable to make a difference at work.

What leaders need to know about burnout is that it is not an individual problem — it’s an organizational one. In 2019, the World Health Organization declared burnout an occupational phenomenon. In fact, according to Maslach, burnout is shown to be a sign of dysfunction within an organization and says more about the workplace than it does about the employees. Leaders often focus on workload before addressing burnout. Yet Maslach has found six major drivers of burnout that arise when there are chronic mismatches between people and their work setting.

  1. Unsustainable workload. Yes, workload is indeed a driver of burnout. Maslach defines this as “job demands exceeding human limits.” It happens when the amount of work exceeds the resources available to get the job done. Individuals need time and support to recover fully from demanding work. When they exceed the limit on a regular basis, it leads to exhaustion.

  2. Lack of control. Role conflict is one area that is a major contributor to exhaustion. When it is unclear what someone’s role is, the direction of the work, or the work priorities, exhaustion sets in.

  3. Insufficient rewards for effort. Yes, financial rewards are included here, particularly in relation to compensation for effort. Beyond that, this area includes recognition from those around you (by both peers and leadership).

  4. Lack of supportive community. In particular, people need social support from supervisors and coworkers to buffer exhaustion. In fact, Gallup has found that a key area for employee engagement is having a “best friend” at work. In fact, women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63 percent) compared with the women who say otherwise (29 percent).

  5. Lack of fairness. In a fair organization environment, people have consideration for one another, attend to the distinct perspectives teammates bring and respond to these perspectives.

  6. Mismatched values and skills. Maslach says, “The values area of work life is at the heart of staff members’ relationships with their work and encompasses the ideals and motivations that originally attracted them to the organization.” When individual values are at odds with organizational values, the work has the potential of undermining engagement and depletes personal energy, reduces involvement, and undermines a sense of accomplishment.

While the six drivers of burnout are complex, they give us areas to dive into to see how we can pivot and change our organizations. If burnout is something you want to examine deeper within your leadership role, consider using the Maslach Burnout Inventory with your organization. 

To learn more, listen to episode 5.8 of Two for You with Lori Rothstein and Dr. Christina Maslach.

Author: Lori Rothstein, former Extension educator, leadership and civic engagement

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