Burnout is a serious problem in today's workplace: Companies everywhere are downsizing, outsourcing and restructuring, leaving workers at all levels feeling stressed, insecure, misunderstood, undervalued and alienated. The cost of unhappy workers is high—both for employees and organizations—because burned-out employees do the bare minimum instead of their very best.
Higher-ups in the corporate world would have you believe that burnout is your fault. They say, "These people are incompetent," or "They've just got an attitude problem."
Our data argue otherwise. For the past 20 years, we have been the pioneering researchers on burnout, surveying thousands of workers and interviewing hundreds more in many different occupations across North America and Europe. For these surveys, we created the Maslach Burnout Inventory—now the standard research measure in the burnout field—to understand how people feel about their work, their workplace and the individuals they deal with on the job.
Statistical analysis of the surveys led us to conclude that burnout is not a problem of people but mostly of the places in which they work. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work or demands superhuman efforts, people feel overloaded, frustrated and well, burned out. Self-improvement alone will not beat it.
If you're feeling dragged down by your job, take a long hard look at how you might be able to work with your employer to create a workplace that fits and supports you. Just as chairs, keyboards and telephones are constantly redesigned to prevent injuries and disability, so can the social and psychological aspects of work be modified to prevent burnout. Studies show that workers who actively address problems in the work environment report less burnout than colleagues who take a more passive approach to organizational problems.
Our research points to six key areas for any employee's happiness: a manageable workload, a sense of control, the opportunity for rewards, a feeling of community, faith in the fairness of the workplace and shared values. When these are in place, you'll feel buoyed, not burned, by your job. And if you're already whistling while you work, these guidelines will help keep it that way.
Burn Out: Too much work, too little time and too few resources make you feel overwhelmed and stretched beyond capacity.
Stay Cool: Workload is manageable, enabling you to meet the demands of the job and even extend yourself to meet new challenges.
This Job Is Eating Me Alive
Paul Beretti was a physician at Orthocare,(*) an orthopedic care facility with 35 physicians and 350 staff members. The center was about to receive more money—and with it, a heavier workload. But people were already exhausted and irritable. "I'm going to work before the sun is up and leaving way after it's set," complained one of the center's staff. "My boss wants to know why I wasn't able to return all of my calls. But I'm getting over 100 calls a day! I feel like the job is eating me alive."
Paul went to the center's management with his concerns. He also started a discussion group on management issues and brought in outside experts for advice. Instead of anxiously anticipating how he was going to cope, Paul took steps to stop burnout in its tracks.
Burn Out: Rigid policies or a chaotic office environment prevent you from following through on your projects and leave you floundering.
Stay Cool: You have the opportunity to make decisions, solve problems and determine the outcome of the projects for which you're accountable.
I'm Not A Stupid Idiot!
Janet Moran was frustrated because her bosses at Digitek, a software development corporation, were micromanaging her work. "Supposedly I was hired for my smarts—so why can't I use them?" she groused. "I'm not a stupid idiot. Trust me—if you give me the right information, I can make good decisions."
Janet took action: She developed a specific plan for how workers could be more independent while management could still keep tabs on what was going on. Her plan struck a chord with the other managers, and together, the group convinced the micromanaging bosses that their staff would be more productive and happier—if they agreed to the changes. Janet felt empowered by the acceptance of her proposal, and this increased both her involvement and satisfaction with her job.
Burn Out: Maybe your pay is low, or perhaps you never hear a word of praise, leaving you thinking your work isn't valued. You feel unhappy and resentful.
Stay Cool: You take pride in your work when you are well paid, and when the work seems important and valuable to others.
No One Ever Says 'Good Job!'
After the abrupt departure of his work partner, Charles Poling worked night and day for 11 months, not only completing his own projects, but the ones that his partner had left hanging as well. No one seemed to notice and there was no talk of a bonus or pay raise.
Charles got up the courage to talk with the other project managers and the company's owner. They worked out a system of bonuses and also began talking about how project managers could keep each other posted on their initiatives. It turned out that one major reason no one ever said "good job" was that they rarely knew what was going on in other departments! They also discovered that Charles and his colleagues were willing to continue putting in extraordinary efforts if they felt informed, acknowledged and had a shared stake in the enterprise.
Burn Out: Tensions with others on the job make you feel frustrated, angry, fearful, anxious, disrespectful and suspicious. Community also evaporates when you are physically or socially isolated from colleagues.
Stay Cool: You share ideas, praise and humor with people you like and respect. There is greater cohesiveness, team spirit and support.
There's No Team Spirit Here!
When Russell Assurance Group, an insurance company, was downsizing, rumors of a merger were flying. Betsy Lobell noticed a general breakdown of trust, marked by gossip and political intrigue. "There's no team spirit here," she said. "There's not much communication about what's happening to the company, so people are left to draw their own conclusions, which tend to be pretty cynical."
Betsy couldn't do much about the future of Russell Assurance Group, but she decided to try to improve her own department's morale. At the next meeting, Betsy shared the information she had collected on team-building. Her proposal elicited mixed reactions at first, but eventually people agreed to give it a try—a step in the right direction.
Burn Out: Perhaps your office loads the work on some and the pay on others; maybe the company mishandles evaluations and promotions; or maybe some get their grievances heard easily while other people's are ignored. Whatever the imbalance, you are left feeling distrustful, disloyal and cynical.
Stay Cool: Respect and justice in your office confirms your worth as a person. Mutual respect between co-workers is at the heart of any sense of community.
St. Bartholomew's Hospital gave its staff a survey, the results of which sent management a strong message: "Favoritism rules!" Everyone expressed anger and disappointment with the way the hospital hired managers and rewarded good performance. As Joel Meckler, a staff member, put it, "Sometimes I think the metric is 'butt-in-chair,' rather than effective performance. Or maybe they are 'loyalty awards.'" As far as management was concerned, this attitude was a big problem: Since staff didn't believe the selection process was fair, they also lacked confidence in those selected.
In response to the survey results, Joel and several other staff members volunteered to serve on a task force with a mandate to design a more merit-based system of rewards. The hospital also revamped the way it filled supervisory and management positions. When the hospital repeated the survey two years later, no one complained about favoritism.
Burn Out: Sometimes a job can lead employees to do things that are unethical or that clash with their personal values (for example, to lie in order to make a sale). Sometimes you may get caught between conflicting values, as when the organization does not practice what it preaches. In either case, you feel bad about yourself and what the job is driving you to do.
Stay Cool: When your work is meaningful to you and is consistent with your personal principles, you are more likely to take great pride and satisfaction in your accomplishments.
They Say You Can't Fail!
At FBX Inc., a manufacturing company, employees always felt caught between contradictory values. As Gaff Weber said: "They say they want you to be creative and take risks, but then they say you can't fail! The mantra around here is 'better, faster, cheaper,' but you can't do all three, so then what? Now the company is preaching about 'having a balance between work and family,' but they're not changing the work demands or the leave policy or anything, so the whole balance thing is a joke."
Eventually Gail and a group of employees complained to management, making sure to include the "Boy Scouts" who work hard and never complain. In response, the company made its priorities clear: The economic bottom line of cheaper took precedence, but a small part of the budget was allocated to risky new projects. As for Gail's complaint that she wasn't able to balance work and family, the company created a policy to limit required overtime.
Try as you may, of course, there may be a time when all your efforts do nothing to improve your job. At that point, you'll have to decide whether to stay or move on. Whatever you choose, it is helpful to use these six areas as guideposts for assessing your fit with the job. The better the match, the more likely you are to be happy and avoid burnout. And the more engaged you are with the job, the better you will be at it. With patience and persistence—and attention to the burnout factors—you can take big steps toward creating a healthier and more humane workplace.
Prevent Burnout: How to Get Started
BEGIN WITH ONE PERSON: You can't turn the workplace around all by yourself. But you can jump-start the process by taking on a leadership role. That means doing research, getting others involved and working with them to take action. This will take a lot of energy and determination on your part, as well as a willingness to risk some potential criticism. So be prepared to go that extra mile—the rewards of being a good leader are worth it.
MAKE IT A GROUP PROJECT: You need like-minded followers and colleagues to make an impact. Your group will have to agree on which problems to address first, and then set priorities for how to solve them. You need to support one another in those actions and maintain the momentum for change. Strength definitely comes in numbers.
GET ORGANIZATIONAL BUY-IN: You and your group may come up with some great ideas, but you can't succeed in a vacuum. The crucial next step is to gather support for your cause. This was borne in a 1996 study, which highlighted the limitations of individual solutions. The study, published in the journal AIDS Care, found that the critical rewards related to burnout were gratitude from clients along with recognition and support from management. These are social rewards that must come from other individuals and groups: Individuals cannot provide such rewards for themselves.
GET THE BALL ROLLING: Start by tackling one problem at a time. Choose the problem with very high burnout potential that might be solved with concrete solutions. You'll be pleasantly surprised: Because the six areas are interrelated, taking action on one of them tends to improve some of the others. Resolving issues around fairness, for instance, may clarify values and promote a better sense of community. An investigation last year of burnout among intensive care hospital workers found that active coping was critical to managing burnout. When working within similar environments, Angelique de Rijk, Ph.D., and colleagues found that workers who were actively addressing the problems in the organizational environment reported less burnout than their colleagues who were taking a more passive approach to organizational problems.
EMPHASIZE PROCESS: The problem-solving process is more important than securing a "happy ending." Work is always evolving—you may have come up with a good solution to one problem, but there will be another snag down the road. What you need is a system for adapting on an ongoing basis. Make a habit of checking regularly on your burnout potential in the six areas. Once you start this process, it gathers its own momentum toward change.
(*) Some names have been changed for confidentiality.