In The Burnout Challenge, leading researchers of burnout, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, examine what occurs when the conditions and requirements set by a workplace are out of sync with the needs of people who work there. These “mismatches,” ranging from work overload to value conflicts, cause both workers and workplaces to suffer. In our interview, the authors discuss the current state of burnout at work.
Author - Editorial Staff
Date - 3 October 2023
Time to read - 4 min
You have been researching burnout in the workplace for a long time. What has been the most significant workplace or management style change you have seen in your research?
While the pressure has increased in many workplaces, others have striven to become more respectful, considerate settings for their people. They do not always succeed in these endeavors, but values of respect and inclusion have become more salient over the decades during which we have been working on burnout. This shift is important because workplace culture plays a major role in shaping experiences at work.
We know that, since hybrid work is so new, you are reluctant to comment on it without in-depth study, but anecdotally, how do you think this will inform your research going forward?
A big lesson learned from the pandemic is that the job can change. It doesn’t have to be “it is what it is.” And if the job can change, it could change in many innovative ways to create a better work environment for workers to do good work and feel good about it. We must learn from what worked well during the pandemic and what did not.
To some extent, hybrid work increases employees’ sense of control. First, they can exercise more choice in where and when to work. Second, they have less performative pressure when they are working. On management’s end, hybrid work requires managers to have a clearer idea of what exactly they expect from people, to develop trust in employees’ commitment to meeting those expectations, and to articulate clear rationales when they require people to come to a work location. In-person work no longer goes without saying.
But hybrid work is not perfect—it can raise issues of fairness when it is unevenly implemented. Given the various types of work people do and differences in the extent to which work is tied to a specific location, one size will not come close to fitting all. This means that we should also be thinking about other ways to improve the matches between people and their jobs.
When you speak to employees and leaders about the causes of chronic burnout, what is something you say that often surprises them?
The common response is often stronger than surprise. In fact, it is often considered a “game-changer.” What we say is that burnout is not simply a flaw of the worker, but of the workplace. And that means it is not enough to simply fix the worker—the workplace needs to be fixed too. The worker fix tells employees that it is entirely up to them to cope and be resilient, which is often understood as code for putting up with the way things are. The workplace fix requires better management of chronic job stressors that actually cause burnout.
How about something you have heard from them that was surprising?
We used to hear that “burnout is a good thing, because it means workers will quit on their own, and I don’t have to fire them.” But recently, we heard a CEO say, “I never worry about my bright, young staff working from home—but I do worry about them living at work.”
With a new book out, you are talking about burnout a lot—does it leave you feeling hopeful or not?
Definitely hopeful! Our book seems to be providing more of a common language for all levels of employees within a workplace, so that everyone can find ways to get on the same page in terms of identifying workplace mismatches and figuring out better solutions.
At our talks about the book, our focus on addressing mismatches seems to be resonating with people. The huge changes to the way people work that occurred during the lockdown phase of the pandemic have increased awareness of the extent to which work can be done so differently than it used to be done.
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