Leading burnout expert Dr. Christina Maslach shares the fundamental causes of burnout and what individuals and organizations can do to fix them.
- Why burnout isn’t just an individual problem
- The 6 key areas of job mismatch that cause burnout
- What to do when you’re burnt out
Dr. Christina Maslach is Professor of Psychology, Emerita, at the University of California, Berkeley, and the co-creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most widely used instrument for measuring job burnout, and has written numerous articles and books, including The Truth About Burnout. In 2020 she received the Scientific Reviewing award from the National Academy of Sciences for her writing on burnout.
In 2021, she was named by Business Insider as one of the top 100 people transforming business. She also consults on the identification of sources of burnout and potential interventions.
- Book: The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs
- Website: Christina Maslach, UC Berkeley
Book: A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene
Christina, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Well, thank you for inviting me. I’m pleased to be here.
Well, I’m so excited to talk about your latest work, The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs, which I understand is hitting lists which is really cool. Congratulations.
Thank you. Thank you. We’re very thrilled.
And I’d love to ask, I understand that you didn’t set out to become a burnout expert, yet you ended up one. What’s the story here?
Yeah, burnout found me rather than the other way around, I think. This was back in the 1970s, I had gotten my PhD, I had gotten a job at UC Berkeley, and I wound out to start doing research. I had been doing laboratory research on emotion, and when I got to Berkeley, they didn’t have a lab ready for me to use, so I thought, “Well, I’m going to go out and talk to people who deal with the…” you know, I was thinking about, “How do you deal with intense feelings when it’s important for you to be calm and cool and do your job? And how do you understand all that?”
So, I started talking to people that I thought might experience this on the job, and give me some ideas that I could then test out in my research. And what would happen, so I was talking to people, what we would call now first responders, people working in the ER, police people, social workers, teachers, and so forth, and as we finish up the interview, I was often asked, “Could I tell you some more things that you haven’t asked me yet about my job?” And I’d say, “Yeah, sure. That would be great. Sure.” “It’s confidential, right?” “Yeah, yeah.”
And they started telling me other things about the work that I hadn’t really understood or heard about in the same way. And after a while, I began to hear the same kind of rhythm, the same kind of pattern, the same kind of story from people from very different kinds of occupations. And I’d asked them, “Do you share this with…?” They’d be, “Oh, God knows, no.” “Yeah, but how do you talk about or think about it? Is there a name?” “Oh, I don’t know,” kind of thing.
So, I tried finding concepts in the research literature that I thought might be relevant, like, “Dehumanization and self-defense where you treat people like objects rather than human beings, so was that it?” “Oh, no, no, no, no.” “Okay. Well, medical sociology talks about detached concern that you have to have when you’re a healthcare provider and working with a patient. You’re concerned but you also have to sort of back off and be not too involved.” “No. Well, I don’t know how you…no, no, no.” “Okay.”
So, then the second serendipitous thing happened, and that was I was at a dinner for new people to the Berkeley campus, and I was chatting with the people on either side of me, and one of them was a woman from the law school. I ascribed a little bit about what I was doing to her, and she said, “Oh, my God, I don’t know what you call it, but in legal services poverty law where I just came from, we call it burnout.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
So, then when I ended the interviews, I’d ask, “What about dehumanization?” “No, no.” “Detached concern?” “Uh-uh.” “How about burnout?” “Yes, that’s it. That’s it. That’s the word.” And so, it just became something that I just got intrigued by because not only…so that was where the word came from, or people resonated to it, and said, “Yes, that captures what I’m going through and feeling.”
But people would get angry as they talked about things. They would cry sometimes when they talked about things. It was clearly something that was really, really important for people. And I kept thinking, “I’m stumbling across something that I hadn’t been prepared for but this seems like it deserves some more attention. I got to find out what’s going on here and see if I can understand it better.”
So, the first paper I ever published, I couldn’t get published in an academic journal because they thought it was pop psychology, but I ended up publishing it in a popular magazine at the time called Human Behavior. And, at that point, it went, what we would say today, viral. This was before internet though, so I was getting sacksful of mail in the department office from people saying, “Oh, my God, I’ve read your article. I thought I was the only one. Let me tell you my story.”
And so, it just exploded at that point in terms of people being interested in the phenomenon, or saying, “I know what this means, and I want to share that with you as well.” So, it’s just sort of grabbed me along with everything else I was doing in research and just decided, “I need to study this some more and figure out what’s happening. And if we can learn something about it to prevent it, or help people deal with this, then that would be a contribution that would be important to make.”
Well, that is a very rich story. Thank you, Christina. And I’m thinking about almost like how, etymologically speaking, I’m thinking that they say someone, like, discovered The Beatles or whatever. Well, The Beatles were talented, they didn’t invent The Beatles, but someone kind of realized, “Oh, this is a thing,” and made it huge.
And so, in effect, you are sort of the equivalent discoverer of burnout, maybe not so much like, “Go figure, this is a phenomenon that affects humanity,” but rather, “Oh, we have some themes and some language, and poverty law,” huh? I guess that’s where the origin story. I never knew.
That was one. But actually, if you look more broadly, I mean, that was my personal origin story, it’s that other woman. And, in fact, I did an interview with her, which was amazing and I’ve cited her as well because she was so thoughtful about all this. But if you look at the word burnout, it was appearing earlier. There were burnout shops in Silicon Valley in the ‘60s, ‘70s. There was burnout in engineering language.
I’m the daughter of an engineer who did work for NASA on rarefied gas dynamics, and rocket boosters burn out, and lightbulbs burn out, and ball bearings burn out. So, there’s a much longer history that goes before anybody was connecting it to something about the job. So, even the word stress comes from physics, engineering kind of stuff. And the load you put on like a bridge and under, what conditions will the bridge handle the load or will it break, or some sort of thing like this?
So, I’m actually not the discoverer of the word. I certainly discovered people who were applying it to their job experience but there’s even a novel Graham Greene wrote, A Burnt-Out Case back in 1960, I think it was, or ’61, so there’s longer routes.
You know, my wife and I met at a book club that was reading a Graham Greene book. Fun fact. Well, let’s talk about burnout. Tell us, you’ve had a role in popularizing the term for usage in humans in relation to their jobs. With all this research and history, any really striking discoveries you’ve made about burnout that are maybe not so well understood or counterintuitive to folks?
Yeah, that’s a good question because I think, for a long time, and certainly still now, the really dominant response to burnout is to say, “What’s wrong with the people on the job?” It’s looked at as an individual problem, a weakness, an illness, a medical condition, and so somehow, you’ve got to be cured or treated or send off to a doctor or a psychiatrist, “What’s wrong with you?”
And often, the solutions when you ask the question, “Who is burning out?” are, “Well, what do we do for our people? Maybe we take Fridays off, or we’ll shut down the company for a week, or maybe we need to do some other kinds of things,” and it’s fixing the people. Actually, what you’re doing is focusing on the effects of burnout but you’re not looking at what’s causing it, and that’s a different question. That’s, “Why are people experiencing this?” not just who they are but “Why?”
And when you look at “Why?” then you’re looking at, “What’s the causal factors?” And it turns out that burnout is a stress response to chronic job stressors that have not been well-managed, so it’s a management issue. It’s like there are stuff on the job, chronic. The important part about that is it’s most of the time it’s high frequency, it’s a lot. It’s always there. The stuff that wears you down. It’s the pebbles in your shoe that are always getting in the way and making you uncomfortable and posing little obstacles to just getting the job done on time and do it well.
And what we know about stress and coping is that it’s much harder to recover from chronic job stressors, or chronic stressors, period, than it is for what we call acute stressors, occasional, “Oh, we’ve got an emergency,” “Oh, there’s a little crisis,” but then we recover, get back, ready to go again, and get a good night’s sleep, etc.
So, what happens with burnout is that it’s not just stress, the exhaustion response, and people often use the word burnout to mean just that, “I’m so tired. I’m burned out.” No. Burnout is when you’re not only stressed and exhausted, you don’t have energy to do anything more, but you are becoming incredibly negative, hostile, cynical, “Take this job and shove it.” So, the whole job situation, the conditions, the people, the things you have to do, are really…you are getting very negative about that, and doing the bare minimum rather than trying to do your very best and still get a paycheck and get out of there.
And a third component intertwined with all of this is you may begin feeling negative about yourself, “What is wrong with me? Why am I here? Maybe I made a mistake going into this kind of career. I’m not proud of what I’ve done. Maybe I’m not really good at this. Why should I do it?” So, when you get that trifecta, that triumvirate of the exhaustion of stress, the cynicism about the workplace, and the sense of your job ineffectiveness, that’s burnout. That’s when you go numb. That’s when you start having other health problems. That’s when you quit, or figure out, “How can I hang in there?”
And so, the quality of performance of the work that you do is going downhill, and you’re not being really much good to not just the people on the job, but your family or friends or anybody else, so it can have rippling effects to be on the workplace.
Okay. So, that’s how we know we got it, or in it, or in the midst of it, that’s the view. So, what are the root causes?
Well, what we have found, and when I say “we,” I’m talking also about my co-author on the book, Michael Leiter from Canada, but also researchers around the world who have been doing work on this that led to the World Health Organization recognizing job burnout as an occupational phenomenon. And what we have found is that there are at least six areas in which the match, or the good fit, between people and their job are really critical.
If there’s a better fit, better matches, then people are more likely to be engaged with work and satisfied with it and feeling good about it. If there’s really big mismatches, gaps, between people and the job, then they are more at risk for burnout. So, the six areas are, and they’re not in order of importance at all, they’re probably just in terms of how well known they are.
One is workload, and, there, the mismatch is high demands but really low resources. You don’t have enough time, equipment, colleagues, information, whatever it is, to get the job done and meet the demands. But often, more important is the second area, which is control, how much say, discretion, autonomy do you have to do the job the best way possible, to course-correct if something unexpected comes up.
And when people talk often about their workload, they’re saying, “It’s an uncontrollable workload. I don’t have any say about how much I have to do and when and where, and dah, dah, dah.” So, control is important. Third area is reward, and what that means is positive feedback when you do something well. So, it could be salary and benefits, but it’s also social recognition, that people recognize, thank you, pat you on the back, say, “Wow, you really saved that meeting with that client. That was really good. Or, maybe you could give me some tips on doing this.” So, you’re getting a sense that you’re doing a good job, people know you are, and you have new opportunities perhaps.
The fourth area is the workplace community, and that means all the people whose paths you cross in some fashion during your work, and are those relationships one of trust, mutual support, that we figure out how to get together on the same page, we have different points of view, we help each other out, we mentor each other, we have good times and celebrate when things go well.
Or, we work in what is often called these days a socially toxic workplace where you don’t know the other people well; they’re aiming to throw you under the bus before they do anything that’s helpful for you or you for them; there’s bullying, there’s harassment between people on the job; incivility, people not treating each other well. And we have seen that area of socially toxic workplace is really growing even before the pandemic.
The fifth area has to do with fairness. Whatever the rules, whatever the policies, whatever the practices, are they fairly applied equitably? That people who did something special, get the next opportunity, or the office with the window, or promotion comes fairly, as opposed to people who are unfairly cheating the line to get ahead, brown-nose the boss, the goodies go to the wrong person, the award process here is rigged. The people who really do something special never get recognized, that kind of thing.
And that can build a lot of the cynicism of burnout, if you feel that you’re working in an unfair place. This is where, by the way, discrimination lives, where glass ceilings are. It’s not a fair environment in which people are moving ahead. And, finally, the sixth area is values, also talked about as meaning. And I think, more recently, people have said purpose. But it’s the sense that I’m doing something that is important, makes a difference, I’m proud of the kind of work I do, the values of the organization where I am are in line with what I think is right.
Or, for burnout, I’m in a job where there are ethical conflicts where I’m being pushed to do things that I think are wrong, or not to say something when I see something that should be reported because it is illegal, or doing things that’s just so go against my values, “This is not why I went into medicine. I’ve got to get out of here because it’s not just about making money. I want to be in a place where I’m really helping people. That’s why I want to do this kind of work.”
So, those six areas can give you a sense of what’s working well, but also what things are not working so well. And those can then give you some thoughts about, “Okay, how do we make that a little better? How do we deal with the chronic stressors in fairness, or values, or reward, or whatever, and improve the condition so that people are going to thrive in that workplace rather than get beaten down?”
And what have you found to be some clever, best practices, or approaches to bring matching back-in-action, maybe either on the employee side or on the employer side?
Both. Rather than making an either/or, which is a tendency people have, “Is it the job or is it the person? Is it the boss or is it the employee?” It’s both/and. All of them. And in many ways, when it says that job stressors have not been successfully managed, it could be managed by the individuals, by the team, by managers, by professional organization.
There are a lot of ways in which things could be altered, or changed, or ideas can be proposed that, “How about we do it this way? How about if we redesign intake so that we don’t have this kind of problem that we all complain about? Maybe it would be better if we…or, no, how about if we do it this way, which would be a rotation? Well, how about if…?”
But come up with ways of identifying the chronic job stressors and what are the various options that we could do to get rid of them, modify them, make them less intense in terms of negative outcome? There’s a lot of ways of doing it. We have a lot of examples throughout the book in the six areas, saying, “Here’s what different kinds of places did and tried to improve the match there.”
And one of them involved fairness which, when we did an assessment, this was an organization that had about 800 people, and it wasn’t workload, it wasn’t reward. To the surprise of the C-suite, it was fairness, and they’re saying, “What do you mean? People think we’re unfair?” And they were looking and asking people, “What’s the problem?” They found one thing that everybody hated, really hated, and that was the distinguished service award that got you an extra little bonus check. And it was kind of like, “Wait. Money and it’s unfair?” It was unfair because people said, “The wrong people get that award.”
“They haven’t done anything special.” They didn’t get a promotion so they went to their supervisor, and said, “Can you help me out?” “Okay, I’ll give you the award instead.” Or, went to the leader of a team, and the team members who actually did all the work of the special thing don’t get anything, just the leader. I mean, there were like 50 reasons why the award was considered so unfair. People hated it, didn’t want anybody to know that they might be nominated for it.
So, once that was kind of we presented the results of it, and said, “This is what you guys said,” they put together a group, a taskforce with people from different levels of employees in different units to work on it and come up with a better solution. The first thing was to point to the CEO, and say, “Fix it,” and he said, “I didn’t know we had a problem. You better help me figure out what to do.”
And it was not easy at first, there’s all different kinds of things you have to consider and come up with, but they came up finally with a proposal for how to do…how to really recognize people who’ve done something really special, and it was voted on and put in. And when we went back a year later to do some follow-up interviews, because we were following people over time, that fairness issue had dropped out, because people said, “Okay, now we’re doing it right.”
And also saying in the interviews, “And if we could fix that, guess what else we could fix?” It built hope, optimism, “Hey, we could actually think of ways of making our working life better by identifying the problems and doing something about it.”
That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. Well, that’s really counterintuitive and good to know that your intentions might be nice but, in practice, things can get abused, such that that recognition harms more than helps.
Yeah. And fairness, if you think about it, it’s a really important core psychological need, social psychological need that we all have, everybody, human beings. We want to be treated fairly in life. We wanted to be treated fairly in court, for example, legal system. Even if we end up not winning a case, let’s say, in the legal system, if we feel we’ve been treated fairly then we’ll be okay with it.
Or, for example, just to take it back to a small example from my own career. I teach a lot of students in classes, and sometimes a student will soon come in, and say, “Oh, I think I got an unfair grade on the test, or on the paper, and I think I need more points.” And I’ll set up a process, and other people do too, “We’ll get somebody else to do a new grading not knowing what the original one was, and whatever that second grade is, it could be better, it could also be worse. And you can lay out what you think entitles you to a better grade on that.”
And then you let them know, “Here’s what a second independent person said,” it could be me, the teacher, as opposed to my teaching assistant, and then it’s kind of like, “Oh, okay. Got it.” “This is why you didn’t get the full thing here,” or, “Yes, we should’ve given you more recognition of what you did.” But the fairness of the process is critical, that it’s not being biased, that it’s not being slanted in different ways towards some people and not towards others and that kind of thing.
So, the kind of fit that we’re talking about here is a more psychological fit with these core needs, like fairness, belongingness, psychological safety, much like we have always been for many, many years. We’ve always been concerned about the fit physically between the body, the human body, and the chair you sit in, or the computer station. And we’ve redesigned those so that you don’t blow out your fingers and wrists with carpal tunnel syndrome.
So, it’s like recognizing that the human body functions best if supported in certain ways, and how do we change the environment to better fit and support the body doing whatever the work is. What we’re finding is the same principle exists when what are the things that make people feel competent, and getting better at their job, and feeling like they’re a part of a good team, and being treated fairly. And those matter a lot.
Okay. So much good stuff. Thank you. So, I’m curious, if one finds one’s self burnt out, what do you recommend the very first steps, one, two, three, about where to go from there?
Well, I think one of the first steps is to realize that you may not be alone. There may be other people who are having similar issues or problems or whatever. So, part of it is to find out a little bit more about, “Do other people share some of these responses to these chronic job stressors?” If you’re the only one, then it may suggest to you, “This is not the place for me. I better go somewhere else.”
But if there are other people who are also, it doesn’t have to be burned out, necessarily, but are also struggling with the same, “Ahh, we don’t have the things we need to do the job well,” then it’s a way to sort of shift from me to we, and say, “How can we do this better?” People often ask, “Do I have to go to my supervisor or manager and say I’m burned out, and can you accommodate me in some way?” And I’m saying, “No, because I think that’s just going to make it more your problem and stigmatize you. That’s not the way to go.”
But if we could say, “How do we put in a process for our unit, our team,” or whatever the sort of reasonable grouping is here, “to handle some of the problems we’re all feeling about an unfair procedure? How could we make it better?” That’s a different question than, “What’s wrong with you?” or, “What’s wrong with me?”
So, having a little bit more of a social power somehow, or to ask that as part of the regular meetings we have, “Do we have something where we can kind of periodically check in, like having an organizational checkup instead of a medical checkup? How are we doing? Are there any signs of problems coming along? The world is changing, do we need to actually rethink the jobs a little bit because we’re not quite on?”
So, having a focus on, “How do we make it better?” actually allows for more thoughtful action and collaboration and customization to actually improve the job conditions. And that’s ultimately what will prevent burnout rather than just helping people cope with it, because coping doesn’t usually change the sources of the problem.
Okay. Thank you. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I think just to sort of re-emphasize the point that burnout is as much about the job conditions, the social environmental conditions as it is about the people who are in those conditions doing the job, and we have to look at both. Getting a better match, a better fit can involve changes, redesign, thinking new things on both the person side and the job side. And, particularly, if it’s things that are affecting more people, a lot of people, it’s important to look at that.
What we have seen recently in, say, Gallup polls, both for this country and for globally, is that the vast majority of workers say they are not engaged with their job. It used to be about, oh, about 30%. Only 30%. I always used to wonder about the other 70. Now it’s dropping down to 20%, globally, people are not engaged. So, it’s like you don’t have to focus on the extreme opposite engagement of burnout. People all along the middle of that continuum are also not so happy with their work.
So, the idea of, “How do we make the job better? How do we evolve?” We didn’t see COVID coming maybe but we had to adjust to that. But in five years, the world probably is going to be different from what it is now. We’re still going to have to adjust and figure out, “What do we not need to do? What could we do differently? What is the most important stuff? And what are things that…? How do we just kind of rethink this job and not just keep doing it the same way it’s always been done?”
Okay. Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
I think one of the things that has always been important for me is something that I think I learned being raised in a Quaker tradition, and it was not what my parents had been raised as but it was something that they chose at that time. And one of the things about that is that the sort of the general beliefs about other human beings are the assumption that there is always some good in everyone, and your job is to look for it and make sure, whatever you can do to help it blossom even more.
And so, rather than just sort of saying, “Oh, these people are not good. They can’t do the job. They’ve got a problem, dah, dah, dah,” saying, “Wait a minute. There could be ways in which they could be really valuable assets,” and you invested in them and hired them. And, “How do we make what they’ve got to bring, come out and really make a good contribution on that?” And it may be different in different kind of cases but I think that basic philosophy of always looking for what’s good in people is something that has always been a part of my research and teaching.
And so, it’s like, “How do I, if I learned something, if I found out about something, how do we pass it on and make it usable so that things can get a little bit better?”
Okay. And could you share a particularly favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
I think of, in my own work, some of the interviews that I’ve done with people that have really just completely changed what I understood and thought about the kind of work that they do.
And I had one person who, when he saw…he was a practicing psychologist in a mental health clinic in the Midwest, and he read the article I wrote in ’76, the first article in the human behavior, as I said that somehow was generating all kinds of attention. He wrote me a letter that was one of the most beautiful letters and completely grasped everything about burnout that I could ever imagine, way better than I could even think of with all the data and stuff like that.
And he just kind of put it all in these beautiful amazing words, which I have then quoted in my books and everything since then. And one day, there was a knock on my door, and it turned out it was this man who had moved out to the West Coast, had decided to get his PhD, he had a Master’s but he was going to get a PhD, and go into practice, and he has become an expert on treating people and helping people deal with burnout issues.
And not only has he become a lifelong friend, he is a musician, and we share jazz music. He has concerts and all those kinds of things. And he is someone who had been at the darkest point of burnout and ended up having a life that was really great, overcame all these things, and was able to make a good life and to help other people better understand what they could do about it.
So, knowing those kinds of stories, what’s possible, it’s just really…that kind of thing really has given us a much better understanding of what burnout is all about.
Okay. And a favorite book?
When I was young, my friends and I became enamored of Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, and it’s been interesting because it’s always been there’s something happening, and there’s clues, and you’re trying to figure out what it is, and can you come up with a solution, and come out with an answer that might prevent bad things from happening.
The other thing I would say is that, again as a young child, somebody gave me a children’s book of archaeology, and I fell in love with archaeology. And, again, you’re looking for clues, you’re trying to understand how people lived in earlier years in different places. And I discovered later on in life that Sigmund Freud was a great admirer of archaeology, so I thought, “Oh, okay, this is good.”
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
Well, I don’t think of it as a tool but I think of it as a critical thing for what I do, and that is getting at least one other pair of eyes on what I’ve written. We haven’t got a tool yet that really quite does it, but it’s like a really good editor, a colleague, somebody with a different point of view, who kind of looks at your writing, and says, “Have you thought about this? Why don’t you say it this way? I don’t understand that example.” And then talking with them about how they’re seeing it, and what I said, and what I’m trying to do, and maybe it’s not coming across clearly and stuff.
So, I just find that kind of interpersonal sharing of work, and having different people weigh in on, and giving me feedback is probably the most important thing that I’ve had in the work over the years.
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
I would point them to my website at the University of California Berkeley in the psychology department. And there is a listing there, I’m now an emerita professor, which means that I’m retired but I’m still actively involved. And so, that would be the psychology department at UC Berkeley. Also, I would recommend the Healthy Workplace Center at UC Berkeley.
I’m a researcher affiliated with that, and I’ve learned a lot more about the workplace because, in that center, Interdisciplinary Center, I get to talk to architects, and designers, and economists, and all kinds of other people who each have a different kind of perspective and point of view and contribution to make to what the workplaces look like, and how they function, and how they go about doing the kind of work that they do.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
I would say that the challenge is really to see this as a continuing process of, “How do we get better at supporting people doing the kind of work that our society needs?” And I think this is a particularly important challenge now because I’m hearing about all kinds of people who are leaving jobs. They are not going back into nursing or being physicians. They are not going back to teaching.
We need teachers, we need doctors and nurses, in terms of our health and wellbeing.
So, the challenge of designing a better workplace is the answer to burnout rather than trying to figure out what’s wrong with people who get too stressed and burned out by the job. There’s a larger lesson of, “How do we…” how can I say this, “…get the best return on the investment that we make in people and their contributions to all of our society?” And that means really focusing on the environment and the job conditions in that situation as well as on the training and the feedback and stuff as well for the individual employees.
All right. Well, Christina, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and very little burnout.
Thank you. I wish the very same to you and everybody else. That’s a great way to end.