Las Vegas 2018

Understanding Job Burnout

Burnout is a hot topic in today's workplace, given its high costs for both employees and organizations. What causes this problem? And what can be done about it?

Empirical findings show that burnout is largely a function of the social environment in which people work. The key sources lie in 6 critical areas of mismatch between the person and the job.

This talk will review major new insights into the causes and effects of this problem, and will discuss the most promising strategies for dealing effectively with it.

Dr. Christina Maslach is a Professor of Psychology (Emerita) and a researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her A.B. from Harvard, and her Ph.D. from Stanford.

She is widely recognized as one of the pioneering researchers on job burnout, who has written numerous articles and books, including The Truth About Burnout, and has developed the leading research measure (the Maslach Burnout Inventory). Several of her articles have received awards for their significance and high impact, including her longitudinal research on early burnout predictors, which was honored in 2012 as one of the 50 most outstanding articles published by the top 300 management journals in the world.

Recently, she received the 2017 Application of Personality and Social Psychology Award, as well as a lifetime career achievement award for her work on burnout. Christina received national recognition as Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. She has been president of the Western Psychological Association, is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology, and has received the Berkeley Citation and the Distinguished Teaching Award from U.C. Berkeley.


Dr. Christina Maslach

Professor of Psychology, Emerita, University of California, Berkeley



Thank you very much for the invitation to come here and share the kinds of things I know about burnout in Las Vegas. This is so cool. I never get to lecture in an auditorium quite like this. Uh, so what I would like to do is tell you a little bit about what we've learned about job burnout. And I've been studying it in many, many different occupations. And when I was invited to come here, I said, do you have any connection with it? And I said, yeah, right. Um, the occupational groups that I've mostly worked with are in healthcare, human services, social activists. Uh, and I think that's probably also relevant for, for some of you here, but people who have a passion for solving problems for social justice and get to the point of saying, no matter how hard we work, we never get enough done.


Uh, and it's always this elusive goal. It's like, 'cause one of them said to me, it's like being anorexic. You're never thin enough. If you're an activist, you are never working hard and accomplishing enough. So this has been part of my history as well. But now we're seeing it in many other, uh, kinds of professions. And actually, about a little 15, 20 years ago, um, I was called by Sweden and some of my colleagues and I were asked, they were saying, we're having this crisis, uh, in some of our workplace things, please come over and help us. 'cause 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, uh, that if you are going out on sick leave or some sort of disability, you leave your job.


They pay for 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, year and a half, you go back to your original job, you get what you had left and come in. And what they were seeing was this sharp increase in the number of people going out on sick leave from healthcare and from it. And they were particularly concerned because when they looked at the diagnosis, it was severe clinical depression work related only. So that was, you know, and so they're saying, does that sounds like burnout? That it's depression, but only work related? Uh, and as we looked at colleagues and I looked at the data and we were sort of saying, well, you know, actually we think maybe burnout happened upstream before this. You now have a problem with severe clinical depression, and that's what you've gotta treat.


But it was probably a warning sign that people weren't paying attention to, didn't know about earlier on. But it got a lot of attention in the press. We were being interviewed, our photos were in the paper. And every time I would go out on a break and walk around, you know, like in the streets of Stockholm, you know, take a break, there would be people. And you could see this whispering and pointing. And after a while, somebody would come up and sort of tap me on the shoulder and say, uh, are you the burnout woman from, uh, the United States? We saw you in the paper. And I said, yes, yes. Uh, and they said, well, just wanted to tell you, I'm one of those people who's going out on leave that they're, they're talking about. I said, okay, and anything else you wanna share? And they said, I don't wanna go back to that job.


Okay. So that was a really interesting kind of thing. Even though they were gonna get the salary, they were gonna be away from work. They were gonna get treatment. It wasn't worth, it was a price too high for them. They did not wanna go back to that job. And that job is what we have learned from research is way more important for understanding what happens with burnout or engagement with work than individual characteristics like personality and where you came from and all this kind of thing. So it's a theme that it will get back to, uh, a little bit later. But that was my first go around in terms of tech. So what's happening now that we're seeing, um, you know, I've been studying this for several decades. And so the workplace today is not really what it used to be several decades ago. So we're not seeing people as doing as much full-time.


Um, there is less and less concern investment in employees in various ways. There's more destructive competition. I cannot tell you how many people talk about the socially toxic workplace where you don't trust anybody because they're gonna try and throw you under the bus and get rid of you as competition. You don't dare ever say, I'm tired. I don't know the answer to this problem. I wish I had some advice. I'm feeling depressed. You're showing your weak side. You can't do that. Um, there are tactics that talent get rewarded for things, but not everybody else. Uh, people feel like they're getting shut out of opportunities, uh, and loss of a common good. So there are things that are changing, kind of how this is all working that I think may make sense as we look at it a little bit later. Burnout, by the way, 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, and it sort of has emerged as kind of language of the people. Um, I'm the daughter of an engineer who worked in, in the NASA space program at one point, and I know we would hear burnout all the time. Rocket boosters, burnout. My favorite is ball bearings, burnout. And the reason is because it's in an abrasive environment without a key resource, which is oil to make it function well. And there is an analogy there to what we've learned about burnout, um, in the workplace. The other thing is that in the early days of Silicon Valley, we were hearing and seeing a lot of the burnout shop ads. People were trying to hire people saying, we are the burnout shop, and we don't want just type A people. We want type a plus plus plus people.


And the burnout shop was really a startup. And it was a, it was like a, a sprint, you know, it was a short term kind of thing, maybe a couple of years. Uh, it was basically, we own you, you have no life. When we call, you come, but, and you're gonna work and work until you have nothing left to give. But then you'll have stock options or some other thing, and you'll get a lot of money and you'll be fine. So that was, that was the trade off. That was the burnout shop. Interestingly, what I think we're seeing more and more is that is a 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. Um, and 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, in order to do this. And we don't always see metrics, you know, taking account of what some of the costs are of this, um, the health problems, uh, physical exhaustion. We've had some publicity recently about sleep de deprivation and what that does to you. Not good. Um, disruptions of personal life, loss of self worth burnout, depression, anxiety, and suicide. Or sometimes we talk about suicidal ideation. And so this is kind of the price that people are paying to work in these kinds of, of environments. And we're seeing it as a more, you know, regular model. And the assumption often is that, uh, people who burn out aren't so good. And in fact, I've talked to, um, managers and CEOs who say, burnout's wonderful. And I say, why do you they say that?


I mean, they're, you know, all the costs and stuff. I said, because they burn out 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 very good. It cleans the house and I don't have to spend much time on it. Uh, in fact, that's not the case. Um, the problem of unhealthy jobs, and this is, um, data that has all been pulled together and analyzed in a new book out by Jeff Effer from the Stanford Business School. Uh, and it's called Dying for a Paycheck. Um, we 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. Um, so there's a lot of statistics on that, but we're always hearing that that's, you know, we have to pay the price.


This is the way to be financially successful and so forth. His analysis of all of the data that are looking at this is that they don't enhance productivity. It doesn't necessarily help the bottom line. Uh, so we're, it's a lose lose kind of proposition. If you wanna see the, the book itself dying for a paycheck, how modern management harms employee health and company performance. It just came out. Uh, and this is interesting because it echoes things that was happening in Japan not too many years ago, uh, where they're talking about roi, uh, death from overwork, heart attack strokes. Now they have a term kairo jitsu, uh, which means, um, death overwork, but suicide, um, that is happening. So we've got some real issues here in terms of, um, this, there's one image that I'm talking about today that I hope you remember. It's this one.


And this is that we have found that the fit or the match, or the balance or imbalance between a person in the job, the person and the environment in which they're working, uh, is critical for burnout in six areas. Um, they are not listed in order of importance. They're listed in order of which one people think of first. Workload is the one that everybody thinks of first. It must be they're working too hard. They're stressed out on the imbalance between too many demands, too few resources, uh, to get it done. But there are five other areas that turn out to be just as important in some ways. And so they can offer an alternative way to approach the problem. One of these is control. In other words, how much autonomy you have in your work, how much choice discretion to figure out how to do it the best way or innovate in some way.


Uh, reward people think of things like salary, benefits, perks, et cetera. We're finding in the research that social reward is also 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, uh, meaningful. Community refers to the workplace. These are all the relationships you have at work with other colleagues, your boss, clients, uh, whoever. Uh, and 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. Um, fairness, this turns out to be a real 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? Um, are there glass ceilings or discrimination or other things that block people from moving forward when they should have that, that chance?


And finally, uh, sometimes this turns out to be one of the most important is values. This is meaning, this is why, you know, what is it? Why am I doing this? Why am I here? What do I care about? Uh, what, what is important to me in terms of what I think is important for our society, the contributions I make, and so forth. And so with burnout, uh, it's not just about being exhausted and working too hard and tired. It's often that the spirit, the passion, the meaning is just getting beaten out of you as opposed to being allowed to sort of thrive and grow. So these six areas offer, as I'll show you later, six different entry points into what could we do a little differently that might actually create a better, healthier, improved workplace to support the kind of things we wanna achieve.


So if you look at it in mismatch terms, demand overload, a lack of control, insufficient reward. When I've talked with people about this often, you know, and asked them about, what's a good day? They can't tell me anything good. The best day is nothing bad happened. You know, it's kind of like, hmm, this is kind of a little depressing standard. Um, a breakdown of community. People are talking a lot these days about socially toxic workplaces. I love the work. I think I'm good at it, but I cannot stand being around these people. And all the politicking and the, and the stuff. You know, it's what you, who you know, rather than you know how well you do, et cetera. Absence of fairness in value conflicts, people being asked to do on ethical kinds of things, uh, being asked to do things that they think are really wrong, getting caught in binds. Um, so the more the mismatches, the more likely we see a risk of burnout down the road a year later, or too late, something like that. Um, it doesn't mean that all of them have to be in perfect shape, not at all. People can tolerate a lot of mismatch if there are some that are really, really important and strong and working well. So this is, you know, giving us a better picture now of, um, how people function and why, and what we can do.


Okay? Um, burnout as a stress phenomenon, it's a prolonged response to chronic situational stressors on the job. And I wanna emphasize chronic, it's not a response to a, an acute crisis or an emergency or something. 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 wanna be here anymore. From the research we've identified three sort of overlapping, but not completely the same in, uh, dimensions. So we measure those. One is the stress response, which is known as exhaustion. Um, and this is like, I can't do it anymore. You know, I've got, you know, I can't think straight. I want to go home, and I've still got, you know, more, more going on. Um, cynicism is, 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 Johnny Paycheck.


Anybody remember that country Western song? Um, and what happens here is that as you begin to get negative and hostile and cynical about the other people, the place, you know what's going on, 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 outta here and get a paycheck. Um, the socially toxic workplace, this is where it comes in in a lot. And then there's a second one, a third one, which 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. Um, people talk about the erosion of my soul. That's an interesting phrase. It comes up a lot that there's no future perhaps for me.


I'm stuck. I can't, you know, what am I going to do, uh, in the future? So there are these, they, they come together in different patterns. So the research measure, um, that I developed, uh, many years ago, the Maslach Burnout Inventory was used to study what are causes and effects of this, and what can we do about it? People are often using it as a diagnostic tool. Now, um, it measures the three dimensions, but it doesn't ask, agree, disagree, or yes, no. It says, how often do you feel like this? And when people are at a higher risk of burnout, they're reporting scores of five or six, several times a week. I feel like every day I am feeling it. So 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 wanna deal with people anymore.


Um, 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, uh, more sophisticated, uh, data ana analyst analysis tools right now to give us profiles and patterns. Um, other people are trying to simplify it and say, it's only exhaustion, or there's a cutoff score, you're burned out. You're not, actually, that's not a good way of talking about it. What we've been finding so far is at least five, one is burnout. And you have three essentially negative scores, high on exhaustion, high on cynicism, high on that. Professional inefficacy. I'm not really good at at this. I'm not feeling good about it. Second one is disengaged. And here only one high negative score, and that's on cynicism. Here's one, people talk about a lot. One high negative score only on exhaustion. And some people use that as a proxy for burnout. If it's it's exhaustion, burnout is exhaustion. If they're high on exhaustion, end of story, that's all ineffective. You have a high negative score on not feeling good about yourself. And the fifth profile is 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.


So, um, here's, uh, a set of of data that we just collected recently. We, in another colleague of mine, and this was in healthcare. So these are all physicians. They're being compared here against the baseline for physicians. Uh, so more positive bars saying those six areas, they're looking really pretty good. Whereas if you look at the burnout over here, they are looking much worse than the norm than the average on that, on all those areas. There's a seventh one in there on administration, which the physicians asked if they could an answer those questions. Uh, but the other six areas, if you can look at this, um, here, this is the one that is the overextended profile. There is one as high exhaustion, and there is one issue and it's workload


That's a different pattern entirely than people who are really experiencing full blown burnout. So all of this kind of thing suggests, I mean, the cynicism one, the disengaged looks more like this. Uh, and here people are doing okay, but not great, but they're not getting much on feedback, social reward, community. So all of this suggests that if we can do more customized interventions, depending on where people are in this, we might do better than trying to say there's a one practice that we'll deal with burnout. You know, dealing with that one is a hard problem. Uh, trying to do stuff earlier, upstream is a better one. So


I used to be talking about burnout as being like a red flag that warns you that something is going wrong in the workplace. Um, let me change that a little bit and say it's more like the canary in the coal mine. And if you understand that 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 better not send people down there. So it's a warning sign. Um, and this is really what burnout is, is is about, 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 such problems among people who work here? What you don't wanna do is try and make the bird better and tough and resilient.


And it can take, you know, if you can't stand the toxic fumes and the heat in the kitchen, you shouldn't work here, kind of thing. Um, so it's, you know, again, it's, it's the sign that it could get worse. You don't wanna go there because it's harder to treat people at that point. Uh, so it's again, a, a warning sign. When I was in Sweden, and we talked about this upstream thing with all the people there that was happening in the country, um, one of the, uh, psychiatrists that we were working with said, ah, reminds me of a fable. And the fable is, you may have heard this, people are walking out in the forest and they're walking by a moving stream, a river going over to a waterfall, and all of a sudden they spot, there's a little baby in the water that's being pushed along and is heading towards the waterfall in the wa.


And so they're saying, oh my God, we've gotta rescue this child. Run in, you know, to take the child out. They get off and they look and they'd, oh, there's another one. And it's coming down the water race into the water to rescue it. And then more, and then more. And they're calling people, come, help, help, help. We're going to rescue these children. And suddenly a couple of the people leave and start running. They say, where are you going? We've gotta rescue these kids. And they yell back. We're trying to find the bastards who are throwing them in. So the thing is, further upstream may be where your problem is, and not simply when it gets really difficult at this point.


So when I say fit between people in the job, what do we mean here? Well, we do this a lot. 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 do a good job of helping them cope with stressors. So if that heat is getting too much, what do you do? How do you get stronger, healthier, get enough sleep, eat the right things, meditate, yoga. There's tons of ideas out there as to what to do. Plus a lot of the coping mechanisms fall into the category of don't go to work. Well, think about that. They're saying, the best way you can do this is not show up, be absent, take a vacation, go home. There's something to say. And about the workplace, really what's happening there, these individual solutions helpful as they are. And I'm a believer in health and, you know, wellbeing and, and you know, being resilient and so forth. But they don't change the job. They don't make it less toxic. So actually what we need to be thinking about is more how do you fit the job to people?


And so what are the work conditions that actually are causing, like I mentioned before, an unhealthy workplace having negative effects on people. How could those be changed in some way? Well, again, nothing new ergonomics, human factors, we do this all the time, but it's on the relationship between workers and their physical environment. So we sort of figure out how human beings are built and made and how they sit and do different things, and how can you change the design? One of my graduate students, uh, for example, who's worked on cockpit design in airlines. So you wanna do it so you minimize the possibility that someone will make a mistake, hit the wrong button, pull the wrong lever. Um, so 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 actually helping people to become more motivated, to be more committed, to be innovative and so forth? These are all psychological. This is about how human beings tick. You know, how we work, uh, how we function, and 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, um, and so forth. So even if you have bought the most beautiful plant, let's say, and if you put it in a lousy pot with not much soil, no sun and little water, no matter how good that plant was to start, it's not gonna thrive. So you need to be thinking about the setting and these other kinds of things.


So what creates when, if you start focusing on the social psychological things, uh, it turns out different. Number five, six. Now seven core needs, lots and lots of data on these that say that when people feel that these needs get satisfied at home, at work, you know, wherever they will feel more motivated, they will feel more positive about whatever it is they're doing. So autonomy, uh, that, you know, the sense of, uh, con some control and choice over what I do, sense of belongingness, that I am part of a larger thing, an important thing, whether it's a school or a team or a unit or a whatever. Um, feeling competent. What is it that tells me that I am good at this and I'm, I'm really feeling, you know, con um, assure of what I'm doing. Positive emotions. We wanna have things that make us feel good periodically, that we celebrate, that we laugh about, uh, that we have a, you know, some, some great things here. Fairness, as I mentioned before, and meaning the values again. And so what the research is showing that if we, you know, these might be the kinds of things we take into account as we're doing a design, a better design of workplaces that support people.


Okay? Um, so if we go back to those six paths that I mentioned before, the healthy workplace, what might that look like in positive terms? What are the positive goals that we would move towards? So here are some that, you know, we've been putting together with our work with, um, healthcare systems. So a sustainable workload. It's not about is it working hard or not working long hours or not, but is it something that can be sustained that there is time to recover, get the rest, get the whatever before you go back in and do and do more? What, what supports that choice and control some 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, uh, how to meet moving forward, and that people know who to trust, who they can go to for advice, mentorship, et cetera. Fairness in terms of how we run things, respect, social justice, clear values and meaningful work.


So just to give you a sense of it can be done. Um, this is one of the first organizations that I worked with, um, and it was about a thousand people. It was not healthcare. Uh, it was a, a variety of administrative, uh, services for a large corporation. Um, and I'm showing you the mean scores when we started with people on the six areas. And what happened was they focused on the fact that fairness was looking much more negative than for the, you know, that occupation as a whole. So they decided to make changes. Think what is unfair? I mean, the CEO was shocked. What do you mean we're unfair? What are we doing? Lots of things that turned out, including a distinguished service award that people hated, hated, because even though it paid extra money, it was so unfair in her terms of who got chosen to get the award.


You know, 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. So they went and changed this over all these things. Over the year, a year later, here's what they look like. They had turned the fairness issue around. Um, 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? Um, and feeding back this information to the people who generated it. I cannot say enough about communication with everybody and getting sure you're getting good input from all the people that you're asking to involve and be a part of it.


Uh, and they now do this process every year since that time. So, six strategic paths. It turns out there are lots of possibilities starting in any one of these six areas to improve a better fit between people and the job. They can be small, inexpensive, and customizable. Uh, 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 20th first century. Um, and there are ways in which people can take more control of the work working together in a, in a, in a more socially positive, trusting kind of way that actually leads to fewer, you know, reduction in burnout, better engagement, less absenteeism, less of the other negative, um, outcomes. Um, and basically when you start doing this kind of thing, what we're seeing is a healthier workplace former will thrive, the workers and the latter will succeed.


Final note, I should say that the burnout shop as we're seeing it today, is not a viable, it's not a desirable future, I don't think for our workplaces, for people there. Uh, we have a new interdisciplinary center at Berkeley where I'm now working with people I've never worked with before, like architects, uh, and people from economics and so forth, and trying to figure out a better way of feeling out everybody has a piece of their workplace puzzle and how could we, uh, do something better than what we have as we design those. So Jean and John asked me, what kind of help are you looking for? Basically, I want more good examples of success stories or best practices within each of those six areas. I love to hear about these things because people ask me all the time, what would you recommend? I'd like to have the evidence of what would be best to recommend.


I will go on the rooftops, shout it out. How can we establish better partnerships between me, researchers, like myself, and, and practice what's actually happening? How do we come together, bring the different knowledge, mind, more generic, you're more specific, and come up with better solutions? Trying them out and getting evidence. Do they work or not? Do they need to be tweaked before they do it? And be able to use that evidence to spread to other places so that in the future we're not gonna see burnout as much of an issue that is sort of, uh, poisoning the workplace. But we're gonna see much more of that optimization, that engagement in which everyone is thriving and really doing their best and enjoying being there. So thank you so much.