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Burnout with Dr. Christina Maslach

Two for You — take two minutes to live and lead with intention

Episode 5.8

Exhaustion. Cynicism. Inefficacy. These are three responses to chronic work stressors that Dr. Christina Maslach has found to be dimensions of burnout.

In this episode, we explore what burnout is and six factors that often drive it. Decades of research from Dr. Christina Maslach of University of California, Berkeley has revealed that burnout is not caused by just one thing. Her research has found that there are six common drivers of burnout:

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values



Note: Two for You written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.

[Lori] Hello and welcome to Two for You. So I'm guessing many of you have felt this kind of this exhaustion or extreme tired and fatigue maybe even some cynicism or withdrawal negativity around work. And maybe even some inefficacy where you felt like no matter what I do I maybe can't even make a difference. And um it's really can maybe even an inability to cope. So if you felt any of those what you may have been feeling is something that we call burnout and today we have Dr. Christina Maslach from University of California Berkeley with us who has been studying burnout for decades. Welcome, Dr.  Maslach to Two for You.

[Dr.  Maslach] Thank you for inviting me.

[Lori] Yeah, so if you think about burnout, what are some things that community leaders, what should we even be thinking about when we hear this term that we kind of throw around a lot, burnout, what is it?

[Dr.  Maslach] Yeah it's a popular term it has such vivid imagery of flames and ashes and all the rest of it. Uh it tends to get overused and applied for just about everything not only this kind of job stress uh but for other things. So I think it's important as you said to really clarify what it's all about. And basically, it's a stress response that's the exhaustion part. Uh, but it's a stress response to chronic job stressors which means that you are facing these and dealing with these on a regular basis not occasionally once or twice a year. No, this is something that's daily almost every day. Uh you know this sort of thing. And the challenge is how do you manage that kind of stress? How do you and let me emphasize, everybody else who works with you, this is a team problem. It's not just an individual flaw or failing. It is not a mental illness. It is you know, it is a human response to stress, uh. What makes it different from other forms of stress is that chronic nature of the things that are triggering it.

That's really you know, much more of a problem. And it affects not only how you view your work. The cynicism you're talking about that for me is really the classic thing about burnout. It's not just stress, it's that you don't care about this job anymore. You just want to take this job and shove it you know as an old country-western musical song used to say. Um and it means then that probably you and others experiencing this are going to be doing less than a great job. You're going to be doing the bare minimum. You're not going to be trying to do your very best. Uh so that has important effects not just for you, everybody that you deal with. And finally, it may also be that you begin to feel negatively about yourself. Am I really good at this?  Did I choose the right thing to do? Uh, you know what's happening here? So it's that triumvirate that kind of happens on a more regular daily kind of basis not occasionally that we call burnout and uh and it's important to try and not only cope with it but actually change some of the things that are causing it to happen.

[Lori] Yes, yeah so that's a great question. So if you think about leaders, individuals who might be experiencing some of these feelings, what should they be looking at? Are there more details or kinds of drivers or factors of burnout to really dig into?

[Dr.  Maslach] Yeah, um, there are several and some of them are probably very well known and others maybe not so much. But um there are six, at least, drivers here that are important. One is what everybody thinks of first of all, workload. And there's a mismatch between people and the workplace. What does the workload mismatch look like? High demands, low resources, meaning not enough time. You don't have the right tools. You don't have the right people. Can't be done. You know, obstacles, all of that kind of thing. You can't meet whatever that demand is.

Second area is uh control. How much autonomy, choice, discretion you have, and how you do the work? Or are you locked in? And you have even if it's not great, you have to do it one way and not a better way.

A third area has to do with positive feedback for things that you've done well. So are, and it turns out from the research that it's not just about money or perks that kind of thing, it's a lot about recognition. Uh, that other people notice and are glad you were there and did what you had to do. Um, uh, or it's you know also internal reward the sense of just feeling — wow  — you know that you did a great job and you're sort of patting yourself on the back. But the social recognition is really important. Uh, if you're in a job where that when I ask people what's a good day and they say the best day is when nothing bad happens. Which is a way of saying there's nothing good I just hope to keep the bad stuff down. So, how do we build in, you know, more of the positives as well on this?

The fourth area has to do with the workplace community. And what we mean by the community in this sense, um, is not the whole larger community, you know, that you're living in, but the people that you have to regularly come in contact with and deal with. So it's your colleagues. It's your boss. It's the people you supervise. It's the vendors you deal with or the clients or the, you know, whatever. Uh, who are the regular people that you are dealing with, and is that a community? That is uh, provides support or is it a socially toxic workplace, uh, that really has bullying and put-downs and, um,  you know, bad things going on as opposed to really working together.

Fifth area uh has to do with fairness people want to be treated fairly no matter what the rules are or policies as long as they are applied fairly. If you are being treated unfairly you are being treated with disrespect. You are being cheated. You are, um, this is where glass ceilings exist and discrimination, because somebody gets that for other reasons than than actually the merit. And that can really boost the cynicism to high levels when people feel that that's what we're doing is, you know, whatever we're meant to do, it's unfair.

And finally, values is the sixth area. And that is what is meaning, you know um, that you're feeling proud of the work that you're doing that it's made a difference it's contributed it's helped things go along or whatever. And when people feel they're working in an environment of value conflicts or unethical kinds of things that they have to do something they don't feel is right, um, in a small way or in a big way um or having to deal with very hard value choices. Uh, like being in healthcare and having to tell the family that they cannot be with their loved one while he or she is dying of COVID. I mean that's a hard hard place to be and some people just say I can't do this anymore.

So those are the six areas and what we're finding is that they help you on the one hand identify where there may be problems that could be fixed within these chronic stressors. These pebbles in the shoe that just drive you nuts all the time but they are also positive pivot points because you can sort of switch and sort of say well if I wanted to go in the opposite direction and make things a little better in terms of the recognition or the, you know, the community workplace or something like that you start thinking about what are all the little things that we could begin to do to make it better in terms of control or fairness or whatever.

So it gives you six different lenses to look at it and gets you out of the box of always thinking it's workload, which it is, but sometimes we found that workload is not the problem at all. But for burnout, fairness might be the issue. So I worked with one group, for example, where it turned out fairness was the big issue in the organization, not reward, not workload. And the CEO was just like, what? How could that be? They think this is unfair. It turned out there were a number of things. But the one thing that everybody hated was a distinguished service award. Um, and the CEO is saying well maybe we have to give more money. And they said it's not a reward issue, it's a fairness issue. It's rigged. It's going to the wrong people not the ones who really deserve it. Um, and when they were able to change that process by unfairness it just had a huge positive ripple effect for the whole organization. If we could fix that, look what else we could fix. Wait we could go over here, we could go over there. It builds hope. It builds optimism that, you know, it's not that the job is what it is and you just have to deal with it, you know, and cope with it. You know, can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. You know, well no you can fix the kitchen to be a better environment in which to wish to work.

[Lori] Well, thank you for sharing those drivers. And I love the frame of the positive pivot. You know, whether you can look at your the workload, the lack of control, the rewards, the community, supportive community we're in, the fairness or the mismatched values. That there is a place that we can pivot. And so, as community leaders think about that this month dive into your own, your own organizations and in your community as you live and lead with intention.

Authors: Lori Rothstein and Denise Stromme, former Extension educators

Reviewed in 2021

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