Career and Jobs

Reduce Burnout Risk: Fix The Workplace ‘Mismatches’

By whatever definition you choose to use, burnout continues to be a worrisome phenomenon in the workplace and private lives of millions of people.

Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter are two of the world’s leading burnout experts. Their four decades of research reveals that mismatches between workers and their jobs predict burnout risk in six areas;

  • Work overload
  • Lack of control
  • Insufficient rewards
  • Socially toxic workplace community
  • Absence of fairness
  • Values conflict

Dr. Maslach is professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Leiter, an organizational psychologist and consultant, has taught organizational psychology at Deakin University in Australia.

Their book is The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs.

By identifying the causes of burnout, Maslach and Leiter have found an actionable solution: identify where mismatches exist in your workplace. Then pivot and improve the matches between workers and the workplace to reduce burnout and increase engagement.

Rodger Dean Duncan: What do you see as the early warning signs of burnout—in an individual person and in an organization at large?

Christina Maslach: Burnout is a response to chronic job stressors that have not been successfully managed. If employees are getting highly stressed and pulling back from the job, that could signal a potential burnout experience that reflects a mismatch between people and their job:

1. Exhaustion is a response to stressors, and it means that there is too much work for people to do well, and they are not recovering from trying to meet those demands.

2. Cynicism is a negative attitude about how the workplace is failing to address the chronic job stressors, and a withdrawal from the job by doing the bare minimum rather than one’s very best.

3. Ineffectiveness involves negative feelings about personal accomplishments on the job, including low self-esteem or depression, and not knowing how to get good advice or help.

Burnout can lead to poor job performance, absenteeism, and turnover, as well as to employee health problems. This can translate into the loss of good employees (a poor return on the investment in hiring them), the high costs of replacement for turnover, and difficulty in attracting new employees.

Rather than focusing on the effects of this stress response, the more important question is, what are the sources of it? What are the chronic job stressors that have not been well managed? In other words, burnout is actually a management problem, not a health one. And the unit of analysis is usually the workgroup, not the individual.

Duncan: Some of the people in your research attribute their burnout to a socially toxic workplace characterized by backstabbing, gossip, and even intimidation. What can leaders do to build a culture that replaces such boorish and divisive behaviors with respect, trust, and collaboration?

Michael P. Leiter: The essence of a good workplace match for employees is being acknowledged as valued, fully-fledged members of their workgroups. Even the most subtle expressions of disrespect or inconsideration affect people deeply in ways that increase the exhaustion, isolation, and discouragement of burnout. Incivility creates mismatches by excluding people from the workplace community.

The most immediate thing that leaders can do is to recognize that their own social encounters with team members carry extra weight. Beyond their impact on employees’ work activities, leaders have symbolic power as representatives of workplace values. Their actions in modelling civility and respect throughout their social encounters can influence employees towards a better match on the community area of work life.

Workgroups that are stuck in a persistent disrespectful culture need help. Toxic social dynamics push people towards burnout, and experiencing burnout pushes people towards responding in toxic ways. Leaders can access interventions and facilitators can help workgroups out of their ruts, so that they can move towards developing a more appreciative, respectful workgroup culture.

Duncan: You’ve identified six mismatches that can exist between a job and a person holding it. Which two or three mismatches seem to be the most common, and what effect do they have on the others?

Leiter: Control has a pivotal place among areas of work life, in that control permits people to shape what happens in the other areas. That is, with some degree of authority or autonomy, people can manage their work to keep demands tolerable. They can emphasize activities that further their core values. They may be able to decide who to work with and when to work alone. So, a good match on control bodes well for all the other areas.

Community has another central role in that belonging to an effective, mutually supportive team increases one’s capacity to address demands. In that way a good match on community bodes well for engaging in intrinsically rewarding work that furthers what one truly values, facilitating matches in those areas.

Duncan: What impact has the Covid pandemic had on the frequency and severity of burnout?

Leiter: The pandemic intensified burnout in many sectors. In healthcare, the early phase of Covid greatly increased workload for many clinicians, created anxiety associated with how lethal the pathogen could be, separated clinicians from patients through protective masks and social distancing, and reduced feelings of efficacy when no treatments worked. Similar pressures were evident in other occupations, such as schoolteachers, but healthcare had the worst.

Other sectors experienced a major change because of working from home, but not necessarily greater burnout. For many, working from home was a relief, avoiding the commute or uncivil work settings. It decreased exposure to the virus, alleviating some of the anxiety about the disease. Although people experienced challenges with juggling childcare and home schooling, as well as sitting through interminable video meetings, the stress level was not comparable to the level in hospital emergency departments.

Duncan: You point out that burnout often comes with a stigma—the victim is blamed. How can leaders ensure that burnout victims receive genuine help rather than blame or guilt?

Maslach: Our society tends to stigmatize any sign of “weakness”—including failures, mistakes, depression, burnout—and it judges the people grappling with these issues as losers, whiners and “less than 100%.” This means that people who are experiencing prolonged stress, fatigue and frustration on the job may worry about what is going wrong, but they worry even more about speaking up or seeking help. Their fear that they will be judged negatively is not unrealistic, so often they will keep silent and not self-identify as experiencing burnout.

However, “self-confessions of burnout” are not necessary to start an organizational process of dealing with the chronic job stressors that cause problems for workers. It can start with a broader shared strategy that continually asks, “how can we make things better here?” and takes ongoing steps to improve job-person matches. Leaders at all levels, from supervisors to the CEO, have a role to play in this strategy, such as adjusting people’s job requirements or redesigning workflow. Talking to people about what they need to do the job well, and enabling that progress, will provide genuine help for all employees, whether burnout victims or not.

Duncan: What are the keys to rethinking the relationships between an individual and the job?

Maslach: First, it is critical to locate the problem between the person and the job, rather than simply inside of the person. It is the mutual impact of the worker and the work conditions that must be understood, instead of blaming one or the other. A focus on that mutual relationship reframes the basic question to why people are burning out, instead of who is burning out. The “why?” framework will generate more productive ideas for improving the job-person relationship.

Second, the value of a match between the person and the job has already been established by work on ergonomics, in which the design of the physical workspace has been altered to better support the human body and its physical functioning – for example, redesigned chairs or computer stations or airline cockpits. This same approach to matches between people and their jobs can be used to better support human workers in terms of their social and psychological functioning on the job – such as their motivation or creativity or helpfulness to others or pride in their work.

Third, there is a universal quality to the job-person relationship, in that it can be used for all employees, and not simply those who have experienced burnout. The shared goal of “how do we make things better” is sufficient to start making positive changes. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 21% of employees worldwide “are engaged with work” – which means that the vast majority of workers are experiencing mismatches on the job and could benefit from efforts to improve the relationship between them and their work conditions.

Duncan: How can people use the six dimensions of job-person match to assess their own employment situations?

Leiter: The six areas model points towards the dimensions of work life with the greatest potential to influence employees’ susceptibility to burnout: work overload, lack of control, insufficient rewards, breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and value conflicts.

The idea of job-person match empowers both managers and employees to active participation in preventing burnout by framing it as a relationship problem. The person is not hopeless and the work setting is not impossible. But they need to improve their alignment with one another.

Further, it focuses managers on management issues: they are not expected to be therapist for their employees; they are expected to explore ways of shaping structures and processes to help people thrive through their work. This expectation goes to the heart of management expertise.

Meanwhile, it focuses employees on how they work. Employees work with management to create a better relationship with work. For example, being prohibited from working remotely a few days a week can create a mismatch in the control area of work life. By taking a problem-solving approach, managers and employees can devise arrangements that allow a better match for employees on control and a match for management regarding fairness or productivity.

Duncan: What have you seen as best practices in employee-organization collaboration to enhance job “fit” and reduce burnout?

Maslach: The success of any changes to create better job-person matches will depend on employee buy-in and willingness to make these changes work. This depends on three Cs: Collaborate, Customize, and Commit.

By collaborate, we mean that leaders should not act unilaterally on their own conclusions as to what would help. They should ask employees to be a part of making things better. Ask for ideas and feedback on various alternatives, and then listen to what people contribute. If employees do not see the potential benefit of a proposed change, it will not happen.

Also important is being willing and able to customize. This is particularly true of “best practices” observed to be working in other organizations. In reality, it is never true that one size fits all, and there must be thoughtful adaptation of proposed changes to each local culture and type of occupation. Encouraging creative modifications also helps a solution become more accepted, because it is “ours.”

Organizations must also be prepared to commit. Achieving positive improvements will require sustained effort, with cycles of making constructive interventions, evaluating their results, and proceeding with further modifications. Work toward creating better job-person matches may not succeed at first, but it is important that the people of the organization keep on trying until they get it right.

Duncan: If the relationship between people and their jobs is the key to dealing with burnout, what is needed from leadership?

Leiter: First line managers have pivotal roles in defining the relationships of people with their work. When people experience mismatches on key areas of work life, their supervisor is the person with the greatest capacity to help them find a resolution. For example, with workload, any meaningful changes in the amount, type, complexity, or pacing of the work involves supervisors. And, ideally, supervisors don’t just tolerate these adjustments but value them as supporting employees’ best efforts.

Functioning in this way means responsive leadership: not mindlessly imposing rules but generating action plans that create resolutions that work for both individuals and their workplaces.

This means that leaders need:

(1) the capacity to listen carefully to their people without rushing to a canned solution,

(2) the courage to try out creative solutions to the mismatches, which people bring to them,

(3) the authority from senior leadership to apply unique solutions to the problems people encounter in their work.

Often, supervisors’ options are limited to giving people a bit of time off before returning them to the same job that caused problems in the first place. Leaders need the abilities and perspectives to create real solutions and the authority to put them into effect.

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