Christina Maslach, professor of psychology emerita, University of California Berkeley, Guest 42 on Get Reworked

Get Reworked Podcast: What Organizations Can Do About Burnout

November 22, 2022 Employee Experience
Siobhan Fagan
By Siobhan Fagan

Get Reworked Episode 42: Professor, Researcher and Author Christina Maslach on what organizations can do about burnout
What causes burnout? So often, conversations around burnout center on the effect — the burnout itself — rather than the cause. It is only when the conversation focuses on the chronic job stressors at the root of burnout, can organizations begin to tackle the problem. 

Because at its root, burnout is an indication of a misalignment between people and their jobs. By identifying where these misalignments occur, organizations can make adjustments which improve employees' relationships with their jobs.

In this episode of Get Reworked, Christina Maslach, pioneer of research on workplace burnout, creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory standard assessment tool and author of "The Burnout Challenge," shares the key factors that influence whether we have positive or negative relationships with our jobs. Christina has studied the relationships people have with their work and what organizations can do to improve those relationships for over four decades.

Listen: Get Reworked Full Episode List

"If we're going to do anything about why burnout occurs, as opposed to focusing on who is getting it, we need to focus on what's causing it, we need to prevent the impact of those stressors, reduce them, or have them be better managed, so that they don't occur as often all of these kinds of things," said Christina.

Highlights of the conversation include:

  • Why burnout and stress aren't synonymous.
  • Why vacations and self-care are only short-term solutions.
  • How burnout is more than an individual issue.
  • The importance of networks and community in alleviating burnout.
  • The six areas where organizations can focus to improve alignment between people and their jobs.

Plus, host Siobhan Fagan talks with Christina about hustle culture, the upsides and the downsides of a daily commute and chardonnay burnout. Listen in for more.

Have a suggestion, comment or topic for a future episode? Send it to [email protected].

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Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity

Christina Maslach: What happens when you talk about the relationship between people and their jobs, it reframes the basic question from not who is burning out, but why are they burning out? If you just look for individual signs and things like that, then you're not looking at what are the surrounding job conditions that may be the sources of the problem that you're seeing people have.

Siobhan Fagan: You just heard from Christina Maslach. Christina is the foremost expert on burnout. And so while we've all been hearing a lot about that topic, especially in these last two years, we thought it would be important to hear from the actual person who has done most of the research behind it.

So Christina is a professor of psychology emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She's the co-creator of the Maslach burnout inventory, which is the widely used metric used to measure burnout. She is the author of numerous books and research papers, she received the Scientific Reviewing Award in 2020, from the National Academy of Sciences for her writing on this topic.

And most recently, she is the author of the book, "The Burnout Challenge: Managing People's Relationships with Their Jobs" with Michael P. Leiter. I can't wait to bring Christina out.

Welcome to the podcast, Christina.

Christina: Well, thank you for inviting me. I'm glad to be here.

Siobhan: I am so excited to have you here. Because I actually started wanting to have this conversation with you someplace about oh, I don't know, 2 years ago when the pandemic became clear that it wasn't going away anytime soon. So the topic of burnout started popping up more and more frequently. You are one of the foremost experts on burnout. You have been researching this for 30 years now. Am I correct?

Christina: Yeah, well, even more than that was let's see, 40 years ago that I first published my research measure on it. So yeah, it's been a while.

COVID May Have Highlighted Burnout, But Didn't Invent it

Siobhan: So how would you put the last two years in context within that broader body of research that you've done?

Christina: Well, it's interesting, because it's unlike what most people think it's not a single easy answer, like, oh, everything got worse. Everything did not get worse. Some places really took it on the chin for sure, in the sense that the stressors on the job just got more intense, more frequent, new ones added in healthcare, first responders, for sure, and people like teachers in schools, I mean, they were thrown into the deep end of the pool without warning and preparation and whatever and say, Okay, keep teaching, but you got to do it differently. And maybe it will work, and it won't. And you know, we had some real real issues there.

For other people, there was the change in the workplace, like they might have to work from home or work from some other place. And at first that had some problems and glitches. But there were also things where it was better for people, all of a sudden, they're realizing I don't have to commute all the way back and forth, you know, in order to work on my laptop and do my job. They were finding as long as they didn't have childcare issues, and young children not being in school issues. But women were more affected by that negatively, I think and young families.

But for others, it turned out that they had a better way of dealing with some of the work. So it's it's a more complex kind of issue. It's not that they got more burnout, like some others did. But I think what happened, interestingly, is that the mantra that everybody would talk and say beforehand, before the pandemic, which is the job is what it is, if you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen, basically saying if you can't keep up with the work, it's too bad. That's what it is, you have to deal with it. What the pandemic showed us is, you know what, the job can be different. It isn't what it is, it could be very different. And I want to go back to a better set of work conditions, you know, we don't have to just put up with it.

And so that was kind of an interesting if I can say silver lining, in some ways to the pandemic, even though there were just a lot of these other challenges and difficulties that we have for many people.

Siobhan: Yeah, I think that we can all agree that in spite of the many negative impacts of the pandemic that we have, particularly in the framework of the workplace, seen some positives come out of it.

But listening to your answer, it struck me that it sounds like a lot of people in workplaces are potentially claiming to be burned out, when you would say that they are not necessarily suffering from burnout. Can you go into that a little bit about some of these misconceptions that people might have about burnout?

Christina: Right, right. It's a good question. Unfortunately, the term burnout is such an evocative term that's both its strength, but also its, you know, fatal flaw in that people use it for everything. Oh, I'm burned out on Chardonnay, I'm burned out on Pilates, I'm burned out on, you know, being a parent, I'm burned out on all sorts of things.

And often it's being used as just another term for the word stress, or another term for the word exhaustion. And those are two perfectly good words that we don't have to come up and give a new word to. Burnout is a stress response. It's a response to chronic job stressors that have not been well managed or successfully managed.

And couple important things, they're chronic, that means high frequency, these are stressors that are there, most of the time, all of the time, the pebbles in your shoe that are just always wearing you down and eroding your soul and just making it more difficult to do the job well.

The burnout experiences, what we've learned from the research is though, that it goes beyond just the stress response. It has actually sort of three interrelated components. One is the stress response, which is exhaustion got too much to do, you can't meet all the things that need to happen and you're exhausted. And if you're exhausted, that's it. And you don't have these other two, then we think of you as being overextended, really worn out, and so forth. But if you still have your job, and you still feel good about yourself, you don't have burnout.

Burnout is the trifecta of not just only having the exhaustion, stress response, but this negative, hostile, cynical response to the work, the workplace people, the things I have to do "take this job and shove it" is the country western song that kind of captures that. And for me, that's more the hallmark of burnout, because you're feeling so negative about the work, you're withdrawing from the work you're trying to do not your very best, but the bare minimum, what do I have to do and get out of here and still get a paycheck.

And then the third component is that negative response and evaluation about yourself in your job, what's wrong with me, I thought I could handle this, I, maybe this is I made a mistake going into healthcare or tech or whatever. And so when you have that begin to happen, and people are beginning to say, wait a minute, I'm not up to it, I can't handle it, maybe it's not a good thing. That can also set you up for subsequent mental health problems like depression or anxiety.

So stress, as we all know, stress response, can have negative health consequences, both physical and mental. Because it's a response that asks for a lot of you to respond to something, you know, fight-flight challenges, threats, but the human body is not really set up to be like that all the time. And so there's not enough recovery and rest and getting ready to start again, fresh, you know, the next day.

So, burnout is not a health problem. It is not simply the exhaustion of stress. It's more than that, and it has a negative impact on both the work you do and how you feel about yourself.

Burnout Isn't Individual Weakness, It's the Result of Chronic Job Stressors

Siobhan: Christina, one of the things that I'm hearing is you're talking very much about how burnout clearly affects the individual and their performance and as a consequence of the performance of the organization that they are part of.

But I think one thing that strikes me when I read your research, read your book, is that this is another misconception that people potentially have where they put burnout on the individual. And they don't actually acknowledge that there is a broader organizational implication here. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Christina: Yeah, sure. This is, I think a very common response to when people talk about burnout is they think of it as an individual weakness or flaw or individual illness. And they often talk about it in medical terms like, what are the symptoms of burnout, and how do we treat or cure burnout or something like that. It's not considered a medical condition at all. It's not considered medical by the World Health Organization. It's not considered medical by the American Psychiatric Association, you know, so, the stress response is a basic human function that we all have, and we should be grateful that we have it because it helps us deal with you know, various threats and challenges. It's when it is as I said, it becomes chronic as a response that it really exerts a lot of wear and tear on people.

But the misconception then is that people point to the individual and say, What's wrong with you? And why can't you handle it? Maybe you should take a long weekend, or you should, you know, whatever.

They're looking at the effects of burnout, but they're not looking at the causes. So coping responses are usually what people talk about and self-care, and how do you cope, and how do you get more sleep and be healthy and all of this kind of thing. Coping is not a bad thing, but it doesn't change the source of the chronic job stressors, they're still there. So even if you go off on a little vacation, and hopefully you rest and have a good time, if you come back to the same job, that's the end of that coping technique, you're back, responding to the same stressors, the same causes.

If we're going to do anything about why burnout occurs, as opposed to focusing on who is getting it, we need to focus on what's causing it, we need to prevent the impact of those stressors, reduce them, or have them be better managed, so that they don't occur as often all of these kinds of things.

So, again, burnout, really is this stress response to chronic job stressors that have not been successfully managed. So first and foremost, it becomes a management issue, by not just managers and leaders in the organization, but by individuals and teams and groups, and so forth, all of the above, can help try and figure out better ways of reducing the impact of those chronic stressors.

Siobhan: So we're kind of coming very close to the topics that you deal with in your book, which I definitely want to dive into. And we're going to be going into that the title of the book, again, "The Burnout Challenge: Managing People's Relationships with Their Jobs."

But before we go in there, I would love to hear if external factors societal, personal economic play a factor here, because I think that is part of the stressors that people have been experiencing in the last two years that potentially made them feel like they're burned out. And I'm wondering if these do play any part there.

Christina: They could, I think the issue is that we don't need to bundle all of these together into one big ball of wax called job stressors. Some of those could be affected by other things that are going on.

But they're also just other sources of stress in our lives, that can have an effect on how we do our work, but also how we get along with our family and our neighbors and other things that we're doing. And so to the extent that somebody is feeling they're dealing with a lot more than just what's going on in the job, and it might be having an impact, sure, they will be feeling that and the question is, how are they coping with those.

But then also, how do we deal with it in a way that prevent some of the negative impact that those have, so that goes beyond the job, but it's still an important element for it.

Underrated | Overrated With Christina Maslach

Siobhan: So Christina, we're talking about burnout, it gets a little heavy. So what I would like to do is potentially play a game with you now, that we call underrated or overrated. In underrated | overrated, I will throw out a few concepts, a few ideas. And you can tell me if that concept is underrated, if it's overrated, if it's neither of these, all of these above, and give a brief explanation of why you think so. Are you willing to play along? 

Christina: OK. See where it goes.

Siobhan: See where it goes, OK, I appreciate your willingness.

So the first concept that I have is commuting to work. And this was something that came up very frequently in all the conversations as a potential benefit for working from home. And then other people saw it as a detractor that was the separation between life and home. So what do you think commuting to work, underrated or overrated?

Christina: I think it's both, quite honestly, it can be overrated in the sense that it's in many ways lost time you're not working, you're not getting paid for it, you're not often really able to enjoy that time, unless you're sitting on a bus that somebody else is driving and you can read or listen to podcast or you know, whatever, that kind of thing.

But often, it just takes a bigger chunk of the day out. It's not in the workplace, but it's not in your personal time. Plus, it will cost more and in terms of tickets or gasoline for your car or all of those kinds of things. So that's the overrated part.

The underrated part, I think is that it can fulfill a boarder capacity, you know, and sort of drawing that line between my work life and my own personal life in some ways. And so the drawback sometimes from working at home is those gets sort of all enmeshed, and it's harder to figure out how to just concentrate on doing the work that you need to do, as opposed to dealing with all kinds of other stuff that happens to be going on in your home and with other people, and you know, your neighbors or whatever.

So I think they're both pluses and minuses to that. But I hear more on the overrated side than I do underrated.

Siobhan: I always love when guests completely throw the rules out the window. So thank you for kicking off in that way.

Christina: Sorry.

Siobhan: Oh no, it's good!

So for your next underrated or overrated, competition in the workplace.

Christina: I personally think that is overrated, because I see so much negative social fallout from that.

So it promotes a thing about me, as opposed to we. And very often we have to be able to work together and figure out problems and etc, we have to depend on each other, somebody needs to sort of jump in when things aren't going well and spot something, you know, that could be done differently.

We know from lots and lots of work in psychology, other social sciences for decades now. And in literature even more, that people need other people in their life, to have a good life to be healthy to whatever. And that means family, friends, neighbors, colleagues in the workplace, all this kind of thing. And whatever begins to tear that fabric, that social fabric apart, takes away one of the most important things that people need for survival and growth and health and well-being and happiness.

And so the competition where people are afraid to speak up, have a culture of fear, that if I say anything that suggests I'm less than 150%, I'm targeted, I'm getting thrown under the bus, I'm being told, you know, well, you're not so great and so wonderful, etc. I'm losing opportunities, I may not get good recommendations, so I'm just going to be quiet and not speak up and not call things out. And people feel alone, even when they're surrounded by a lot of people, they have nowhere to turn.

One of the things I often hear from people, when I asked about what kind of thing might sort of help you in dealing with burnout. Over and over again, people often talk about another person, or to a safe harbor, a safe mentor or somebody that I could turn to and that I could be that person for somebody else. But where we could really talk about things, get advice, get some guidance, pat's on the back, let me cry on your shoulder, you know, all of those kinds of things that people provide for each other, get literally taken away by everybody's a competitor. Everybody is not your friend. They're their worst enemy. 

Siobhan: So I think that I already know the answer to this next one.

Christina: OK.

Siobhan: This one might be a little easy, and you might not even need to give that much of an explanation. So, here we go. Hustle culture underrated or overrated?

Christina: Oh, my gosh, definitely overrated.

Siobhan: speaks for itself. Right? It?

Christina: Yeah, there's so many different ways in which people talk about that kind of thing, hustle culture, in China, it's been the 996 culture, where you work nine to nine, six days a week, even though supposedly you're not supposed to. But, you know, yeah, it's just destroying that, the rhythm of our lives and of how our bodies and minds function best, so yeah, no, overrated.

The Burnout Challenge

Siobhan: Excellent. So we're gonna hop into your book now. And what's interesting about the book, again, "The Burnout Challenge, Managing People's Relationships with Their Jobs," is that subheading, so it's the relationship between the job and the person is what you and your co author Michael Leiter, are saying are the best way to understand burnout.

Can you tell me how you came to that conclusion? And why is that the best way for us to understand burnout?

Christina: Well, we came to that conclusion over the years of doing the research, but also working in applications of the research. If I can say that, I mean, often what we're doing, you know, we're not in some laboratory, getting information. We're actually out in different places in organizations, doing observations, doing interviews, as well as collecting self-assessment and other kinds of data. And so we can sort of see it in operation as well.

And first, I want to point out that the notion of a relationship, a good relationship, between the person and the job is not a new concept. It's been around for a while and we know from what we have seen for many decades, that that can have incredibly positive benefits for everybody. So the way it's been used in the past has been in terms of a better match or fit between the physical environment and the job and the person. So we redesigned chairs, we changed the design of computer workstations, so that it doesn't cause carpal tunnel syndrome. In other words, we adjust things in the physical environment, to adapt to how human beings, how they're built, how they function, the physical functioning.

What we're arguing here is that, in addition, if you can get a better match or fit in terms of the psychology and the social core of people's lives and experience, and get a better fit there, you're going to get more engagement with the work more support for people doing what they're doing and feeling good about what they're doing. So it's really taking into account things like belonging to an organization, feeling like you're a good part of that fairness, how much control and autonomy you have to do the job the best way possible, or make course corrections, when something unexpected, a problem comes up, getting positive feedback, when you do something really well, and the meaning of the work, all of these kinds of things are core to what makes people tick, you know, what makes them motivated, what makes them put in time and effort and, you know, take pride in their work, help other people out all of those kinds of things.

And if we can get better matches in between the work conditions and people in those as well as the physical, then we're just creating a better environment in which they thrive, rather than get beaten down.

Warning Signs and Prevention of Burnout

Siobhan: Are there warning signs that leaders can look out for that these mismatches are potentially arising? Or is that something that would only be noticed more at the managerial level?

Christina: I think if people begin to think about that, and use it as a construct, rather than saying, gee, somebody's burned out, they're kind of sick, and they need to recover from their illness or something. So if you have a new way of kind of framing all of this, you look at other things.

What happens when you talk about the relationship between people and their jobs, it reframes the basic question from not who is burning out, but why are they burning out? So it's not if you just look for individual signs and things like that, then you're not again, looking at what are the surrounding job conditions, that may be the sources of the problem that you're seeing people have?

So in a way, burnout is more like a signal that there are some chronically stressful conditions out there. So for me the best question that people can ask, and certainly, first-line managers, I mean, they're in a great position for this is not do I see a sign of a problem? But before you have a problem, asking the question on a regular basis, how are we doing? What's working? Well, where are we running into some issues or some problems? How could we begin to change that so it becomes less of a problem or a threat for what people have to do?

People often ask me, Do I have to kind of confess that I'm experiencing burnout go to my boss I'm burned out? can you accommodate me or something like that? Usually, my response is no, because you're setting yourself up for the finger pointing, what's wrong with you? It's better to sort of say, we're having some issues now that we're working on X rather than Y or we're not back in the office or something, could we think about how we could do this a little differently, so that it becomes less of a drag, and we can spend more time on the important stuff. 

Siobhan: At that point, it sounds like it would come down to the individual to potentially raise these issues with the organization.

Christina: Actually, I would disagree. My sense is, you've got to connect with other people and make it a we problem again, because making changes in job, these chronic job stressors, that's going to affect more than just you, and it might be good for the team or for that particular unit or something like that. And everybody sort of has to be on board with that.

A lot of individual, meaning only making an accommodation or a solution for a single person, isn't always the best way to go. I mean, I'm seeing that problem right now with people having calls from their offices, come back to work, come back into the building, you know, and then say, well pick a day, two days. Okay, any three days that you pick? Well, that's not thinking collectively. When do we need people together in the office space to really do something important?

I see this now people show up on a day and nobody also is there it's kind of like so why did I come in it? What's the point? If it's work that I can do from home?

So making it more of a shared issue, not that we are burned out necessarily, because there's still a stigma sometimes attached to that. But how could we improve things and make it a little better? Can we come up with some different ideas about what we're doing together in the office as opposed to we're just doing you know, we're on the computer all day long.

Siobhan: Yeah. You're reminding me of something that you said during the over under, and it comes down to these relationships that people have, to a large extent, it's these supporting networks that they have, have an integral part to play in either alleviating, avoiding or contributing to burnout if those networks are absent.

So did that move to work from home to those people who aren't coming into the office, is there an actual argument to be said that you should come into the office because we need to work on these networks? 

Christina: Yeah. If you begin to think about how that plays out, or could play out in a particular organization, or on a particular team, or unit or something like that, I think, yeah, you could begin to articulate that. That is, I think, as you point out, one of the downsides of the remote work is that you may not have the same connection with other people that you used to have. And people can be sort of more feeling isolated, or lonely, or all of the stuff that goes on not just about the work, but about how we approach the work, how we get to know each other and trust each other, you know, to be somebody I could turn to if an issue came up.

So sometimes people tried to deal with that by just having endless endless zoom meetings that went on forever. And that wasn't always a successful way of doing it. But other people, I have to say, were telling me that being at home and working meant that they didn't have to deal with some of the really more abusive kinds of colleagues that they have, I don't have to be in all of that stuff. Even long before the pandemic, people were talking about the community in the workplace as socially toxic, you know, it's like, I like the work I do, I think I'm good at it, but oh, God, I can't stand these other people in the office kind of thing. And there's, you know, incivility and putting people down and bullying and harassment, and you know, all of this kind of stuff that can happen. And if it does, being away from it is great. But at the same time, it means that you're losing connections with other people who work with you, who you need to coordinate with, who provide advice and mentoring based on their experience, who come up with better solutions for all of us, who laugh and joke and have fun, you know, and make it a good environment.

On the flip side, I have to say that I've often heard over the years from people saying, well, okay, you know, the jobs, yeah, it's a lot of work. And the building is not so great. And they don't pay me enough or whatever. But the people I work with in my unit are like gold, this is like money in the bank, and I would rather be here with them, then something else. So it can sometimes be the make or break difference.

6 Areas to Better Align People and Their Jobs

Siobhan: So if you were to give any kind of parting advice to a leader who is just now thinking, Oh, wait, I actually have a part to play in preventing work burnout in my workplace, what areas would you recommend they look to, to see about improving?

Christina: Well, in the book, we talk about the six we've been able to identify, six areas where that match or mismatch between people in the job seems more predictive of burnout down the line if it's mismatches, or engagement if you get things in better shape, not perfect, but just better.

And I'll list them not in the order of importance, but really more what people think about.

  1. First one is just workload: How much do you have to do and can you get it done the mismatch is way high demands way low resources, time people equipment, information, whatever to get it done.
  2. Second area has to do with control: How much autonomy do you have to make decisions and use your best discretion you know as to how to do it or you're just locked in there's you do it this way, no other way and it's uncontrollable and I have no input and no choice and no say in how the job is done.
  3. Third area has to do with what we call reward. People think about salary and benefits, but actually in the research was coming out a lot is social recognition, that somebody notices you were there and did a good job and cared and let you know that it was appreciated and you know, where they want to learn from you how to do that better, that kind of thing.
  4. Fourth area is the community, meaning the workplace community. And I just talked about about the mismatches, the socially toxic, where people do not get along, that is stressful dealing with the people who you're supposed to be your colleagues, or your clients or your patients or students, whatever. So having one of trust and support where we figure out even if we disagree how to move forward is more than match.
  5. Fairness turns out to be a really important one, that whatever the policy, the practices and how we do our job, it's fairly administered. And people have, you know, new opportunities or rewards or, you know, promotions or whatever. If there's a lack of fairness, and it's this is where discrimination lives, this is where glass ceilings are, that builds up the cynicism that negative reaction to the job big time.
  6. And then finally, values or meaning of the work. Are you doing something that you feel is important, you're proud of, you're glad you're made the choice to be this kind of worker, and do this kind of job? Or are you caught up in ethical conflicts where you're having to do things you think are wrong, or really harmful? Or you're being told not to call out things that are a mistake are not going well, you have to be the code of silence and all that kind of thing. And sometimes people just say, it's, I'm selling my soul here, I can't do it, I'm quitting going somewhere else. Because of that.

So those are six areas, which, rather than just go for the workload, which everybody thinks of first, is to look at the other things, sometimes it's not the workload, it's not the rewards, its fairness, or it's the community issues. And those require thinking about other kinds of solutions. How do we make it better here.

I'll Never Say 'I'm Burned Out From Chardonnay' Again

Siobhan: I love that you're painting this really nuanced portrait of all the different elements that not only contribute to burnout, but also on the other side can contribute to making a better workplace.

So I think that is a really lovely and nuanced note to end on, Christina, once again, the book is "The Burnout Challenge: Managing People's Relationships with Their Jobs."

If our listeners want to learn more about you about your work about this book, where can they find you online? 

Christina: Well, there is a website for the book, which has a lot of the information about us, the authors and the book and all that kind of thing. And it's called theburnoutchallenge.com. We're also available on email at our institutions, Michael is at Acadia University in Canada. We're both retired, however, now, and I'm from the University of California, Berkeley. So there's also a website, for example, in my case, in the psychology department on the Berkeley website, and you go to Department of Psychology, all the faculty are listed, including retirees like us. And there's a whole little website that lists my publications and the work I do and you know, what I'm working on now and all of that kind of thing. So that would be another place to go.

Siobhan: Excellent, well thank you so much for joining me today. Christina. I really truly enjoyed our conversation and I vow I will never say, I'm burned out from Chardonnay again.

Christina: Thank you for having me. It was it was good to be able to have this conversation.

Siobhan: Thank you so much.

If you have a suggestion or a topic for a future conversation, I'm all ears. Please drop me a line at [email protected]. Additionally, if you liked what you heard, post a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you may be listening. Please share Get Reworked with anyone you think might benefit from these types of conversations. Find us at reworked.co. And finally, follow us at Get Reworked on Twitter as well. Thank you again for exploring the revolution of work with me, and I'll see you next time.

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