Inside Story

On not burning out

Is the workplace malaise bigger than two organisational psychologists believe?

Frances Flanagan Books 16 February 2023 2407 words

“Her days felt like a meaningless cycle of ‘rinse and repeat.’” MHJ/iStockphoto

Stan, a young psychologist in a community health centre, changed over three years from an “avid, eager, open-minded caring person” to an “extremely cynical not-giving-a-damn individual.” Reliant on alcohol and tranquilisers, he could only get through each day at work by approaching it “as if I was working at GM, Delco or Frigidaire” because “that’s what it has become here, a mental health factory!

An unnamed emergency doctor, fuelled by the desire to staunch suffering, worked long days in Afghanistan for six months treating patients with horrific injuries. It was not this experience, however, that led her to quit, but rather her time working in an emergency room of a community hospital on her return to America, where her days felt like a meaningless cycle of “rinse and repeat.”

How are we to make sense of the strange alchemy by which modern workplaces convert some workers’ enthusiasm, commitment and confidence into cynicism, withdrawal and depletion? In their new book The Burnout Challenge, organisational psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter offer two contentions about understanding and tackling these quiet workplace tragedies.

The first is a riff on the historical practice of putting canaries into coalmines to detect toxic air that could kill miners. “Let’s say our hope was to keep more birds singing in the mines. What would be our best approach? Should we try fixing the canary to make it stronger and more resilient — a tough old bird that could take whatever conditions it faced? Or should we fix the mine, clearing the toxic fumes and doing whatever else necessary to make it safe for canaries (and miners) to do their work?”

The second is the claim that an “increasing mismatch between workers and workplaces” is the cause of burnout, and that the mismatch takes six forms: work overload, lack of control, insufficient rewards, breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and values conflicts. The self-described “burnout shops” of Silicon Valley are archetypal mismatched workplaces, the authors say: employers brazenly boast of having an “always on” work culture, and workloads are so obviously unsustainable that a job in a startup is only feasible for a few years.

How or why this particular chamber of the “mine” got so toxic for its canaries, though, or its relationship to the other kinds of workplaces that make up the mine, is not something the authors attempt to explain. Befitting experts who have made major professional contributions in the form of taxonomies and systems for data collection (Maslach was the creator of the “Maslach Burnout Inventory,” Leiter the “Areas of Work Life Survey”), The Burnout Challenge takes a highly schematised approach in guiding managers to incrementally improve levels of worker efficiency, health and happiness in their workplace.

It turns out that decades of peer-reviewed research shows “receiving good vibes or compliments” to be “an uplifting experience” and that involving staff in rostering decisions can increase their sense of control. Evidence also backs the idea that “there should be sensible limits on work hours and a focus on how employees will complete tasks within that time rather than be forced to donate personal or sleep hours to finish their work.” It is particularly dispiriting for employees to have an overfilled plate of tasks when those tasks are lower than their capability level. The blunt assumption that “people deliver under pressure” is wrong.

Many employers could genuinely benefit from reading this advice, and not all of them are quiet admirers of the rise-and-grind, move-fast-and-break-things management philosophy of Silicon Valley. Maslach and Leiter provide lots of neatly enumerated lists illustrated by breezy narrative vignettes and even simpler graphics (the section on “insufficient rewards” gets a thumbs-down emoji; the chapter on “values conflicts” shows a broken heart lying in a pool of blood). If you find ticking off a to-do list an appealing mechanism for keeping the complexity of the world at bay, you may find all of this soothing.

Readers drawn to thinking about the deeper causes of burnout may be struck by how eye-wateringly obvious and familiar these statements are. Since F.W. Taylor popularised “hard” scientific management in the early twentieth century, observers have noted the self-defeating and demoralising consequences of attempting to wrest maximum value from employees.

Elton Mayo’s book The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization, for instance, published in 1933, included chapters on fatigue, monotony and morale, all themes taken up by Maslach and Leiter. Like them, Mayo urged managers to view employment in relational terms. What workers required was recognition, community and respect.

Rather than asking ourselves what is wrong with this kind of advice, we may be better off considering why, ninety years on, books on these themes are still in demand. A simple response might be that, like the wisdom of a kindergarten teacher, basic lessons in how to behave well at work are always relevant and it never hurts to have them repeated: listen carefully, don’t demand impossible things, practise give and take, don’t steal, apologise when you make a mistake, and it is not okay to threaten people to get what you want.

Another, less rosy answer is that books of this kind not only are easy-to-read digests of academic research but also reinforce the longstanding idea that burnout is a consequence of inadequate managerial technique rather than inadequate worker power.

For their work to resonate with their time’s commonsense ideas of wellbeing, every generation of scholars in the human relations school has to tackle their task in a slightly different way. In Mayo’s day, employers were invited to understand themselves as grappling with “problems of human equilibrium,” “social disorganisation” and anomie. Today, Maslach and Leiter suggest, employers play a six-dimensional game of workplace matching with employees, a framing of the problem that resonates well with what theorists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello dubbed the new spirit of capitalism — the emphasis on individual autonomy, initiative, intimacy, pleasure and creative expression that has prevailed for the last four decades.

The mismatch metaphor diverts attention away from the structural determinants of power and towards the agency of individual workers and their managers. Other actors — trade unions and the governments that set the terms of workplace relations — are relegated to the background.

The idea that tackling the burnout “challenge” involves aligning two puzzle pieces also invites us to assume that the parties negotiate with roughly equal bargaining power, and that if a match is not found either party may walk away in search of another, better match. If we view this drama as a mutual desire for a satisfying “click,” we are less likely to notice that the employer’s puzzle piece is usually made of unyielding metal while the employee’s is more often soft and pliable or, worse, brittle and prone to shatter.

Maslach and Leiter don’t wholly ignore unions. They credit the Australian stonemasons for establishing the norm of an eight-hour working day in 1856. But they don’t acknowledge unions as manifestations of the “beneficial social communities” they praise in other contexts. The Burnout Challenge does mention union-like formations on several occasions, but using terms like “cuddle huddle” and “social pod” that implicitly distinguish these “good,” “customised” forms of collectivity from “bad” ones that come “off the shelf.”

Digital technologies also make an appearance in The Burnout Challenge, but primarily as carriers of additional workload. Maslach and Leiter declare that “technology must be managed — and managing it means balancing on and off time.” This perspective ignores the vast potential of digital technology for workplace surveillance. Numerous observers have noted, for instance, that Amazon’s use of technology to monitor employees’ work rates is related to the dangerous intensification of work at the company. In the gig economy, of course, work may be coordinated and managed at scale in the absence of an employment relationship.

Nor do the authors touch on the digital dynamics quietly eroding anti-discrimination law, labour law, anti-trust law and privacy law through what legal scholars Richard Bales and Katherine Stone call “the invisible web at work.”

Maslach and Leiter coyly allude to the relationship between insecure employment and burnout in a discussion of “tentative relationships,” noting that workers may experience “anxious feelings about disposability” and that “it is difficult to exercise control in a relationship without confidence that the relationship will continue.” The logical extension of such observations — that it might be wise for managers to offer secure employment as a burnout-prevention measure — goes unstated.

In airbrushing power from the narrative, The Burnout Challenge also diminishes employer powerlessness, even though recognising the limits of what managers can do is surely crucial to understanding the phenomenon and its solutions.

Many of the “values mismatches” the writers refer to are the product of institutional frameworks over which employers exercise little control. Consider, for instance, the clash between market-based mechanisms and professional–client obligations in care work and other highly “emotionally connective” jobs. As sociologist Allison J. Pugh has brilliantly observed, a panoply of workers — therapists, teachers, doctors, carers and more — need to be present and receptive, and bear witness, to the emotional truths of others.

Such acts of recognition are inherently particular, and often experienced as among the more meaningful aspects of work. They are also, thanks to New Public Management approaches, subject to massive pressures from rationalisation, standardisation and accountability, via manuals, checklists, scripts, templates and digital platforms, and are organised within “regimes of scarcity.”

A generation of research has observed that psychosocial injury is linked with high quantitative demands, insecure work conditions, compromised skill development, low control of work tasks, and market-based systems. These conditions are not unfortunate accidents; they are the inevitable concomitants of treating care work as a commodity to be delivered “just in time.”

Such dynamics are very difficult to grasp when burnout is framed as a workplace-level issue, as Maslach and Leiter do when they recount what happened after the takeover of a rural hospital by a private health organisation. Following a “values clarification process” of town hall meetings, focus groups and unit-level discussions, a new hybrid values system emerged, with neither hospital nor new owner “winning.”

The authors suggest that managers struggling with similar values clashes should consider the parable of the janitor at NASA who, in 1961, encountered president John F. Kennedy. When the president asked why he was working so late mopping floors, he responded, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon!” Maslach and Leiter distil a set of “sense-giving” steps for managers from this tale: “narrow the focus on one goal; shift from an abstract description of the goal to a concrete one; set up clear milestones to the goal; give life to the idea by using persuasive language and rhetorical techniques.”

A radical indifference to context is apparent here. Not only does cold war–style talk of national purpose no longer apply, but a cleaner would now, more likely than not, be an outsourced worker with an entirely different manager from the “core” workforce to whom the “purpose talk” applied.

The assumption that healthcare is, in essence, similar to putting a man on the moon is also highly questionable. It would only be exaggerating slightly to suggest that true burnout-minimising leadership in a care context involves flipping each of the proposed “sense-giving” steps on its head: encourage employees to widen the focus from the goal to the person; embrace the abstract and expansive goal of hearing someone; reassure employees that work of this kind is not linear and that hearing someone’s needs in a meaningful way takes time; recognise the overwhelming significance of employees having the security, time, skills and trust to form relationships.

It is unsurprising, perhaps, that The Burnout Challenge also has little to say about how the stories that live in our heads and in our culture contribute to burnout. Maslach and Leiter offer scant recognition of how the idea of “passionate work” saturates our culture to the extent that it forms an “interpretative schema” for the world, long before any individual crosses the threshold of a particular workplace.

Drawing on the work of Raymond Williams, communications researcher Renyi Hong has argued that passion is now a “standard post-Fordist affect.” The idea of “passionate work” fosters a sense of an ideal capitalist self: well managed, resilient and capable of coping with economic fluctuations and precarity. It is an argument that resonates closely with Lauren Berlant’s concept of cruel optimism: relationships made available at work under capitalism offer themselves as objects of desire while also representing profound obstacles to flourishing. The relevance of both ideas to employee burnout is obvious.

As a concept, “burnout” need not be bereft of political potency. It can invite critical thinking about limits, energy and reproduction, and help reframe the “non-productive” as crucial and valued. It can question the logic that intensity is inherently good. In the climate change era, these questions are excellent ones to be asking, both of ourselves as individuals and of societies as a whole.

A politics built on the refusal to be “burned out” recalls the insistence that labour is not a commodity and invites its extension to other things — such as rivers, skies, forests and all the ecosystems of which they are part — that we should not readily accept as simply raw materials for production. It asks that we consider how we will revalue and protect all of the human spaces founded on non-capitalist values — families, schools, welfare states, unions and Indigenous communities, to name a few. It would be a politics, in other words, built on deliberate and defiant mismatches.

The Burnout Challenge, needless to say, is not concerned with such a politics. While its authors may have rejected the project of turning the canary in the coalmine into a “tough old bird” capable of enduring toxicity, their book doesn’t do much to analyse or adjust the underlying sources of the mine chamber’s fumes. Much less do they consider inviting the bird to participate in the endeavour.

Maslach and Leiter offer modest and practical suggestions that may help some bad workplaces become less bad. But the bird they construct as their object of concern is a lonely and flighty one, primed to glide into the next chamber in search of better air, sustained by the hope that their “match” is just around the corner. •

The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs
By Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter | Harvard University Press | $51.95 | 272 pages