The real answer to fight burnout in the workplace

Job burnout isn't just an expression anymore, it's now officially a medical disorder.

Last May, the World Health Organization classified job burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." To sum up, it's a state that can lead to fatigue, low productivity, and even anxiety and depression.

The term 'burnout' goes back to 1974, when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it in a paper to describe his colleagues at a free health clinic in New York City. He noticed that, over time, many of the doctors, nurses and social workers tending to patients became less motivated and weren't doing as a good of a job, even though they cared about it a lot. They were exhausted mentally and physically, and they often developed headaches, insomnia and other stress-related symptoms. And Freudenberger himself had these issues too.

Thanks to expert Christina Maslach and her Maslach Burnout Inventory, a survey used to measure the level of burnout in people, we have learnt that it's not limited to jobs where people interact with other people. Actually, you don't even need a job to experience it – students can feel it too.

Burnout can take form in different ways, but most experts agree that it has three main common representations:

Exhaustion: Essentially, after giving their all for a while, people don't have much else to give, and that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion.

Cynicism: People detach from work, coworkers and clients, and adapt a negative attitude towards the workplace. Rather than doing their very best, they do the bare minimum.

Professional inefficiency: Not only they are less productive and are more willing to quit their jobs, but they also begin to wonder if they're doing a good job at all.

Historically, most "remedies" recommended by experts focused on the burnout person themselves: exercise often, get more sleep, do some yoga, find some hobbies, etc. Nowadays, experts are putting the focus on the companies and their highly stressful and toxic job conditions.

Christina Maslach highlights the importance of putting the blame where it belongs: "The individual solutions don't make the work environment less toxic. The response should focus on making the environment more healthy, not dumping the blame on the worker."

She compares the burnout situation to a canary in a coalmine: "If the canary is having trouble breathing, it's a sign that the workplace is dangerous. You don't want to try to make the bird better, and tougher, and more resilient. You want to avoid the 'if you can't stand the toxic fumes, you shouldn't work here' kind of attitude. What we should be wondering is 'what is going on to cause such problems among people who work here?'."

Thanks to her extensive research on the topic, Maslach has discovered six critical areas that are rapidly fomenting burnout in the workplace: demanding workloads, feelings of lack of control, insufficient rewards, toxic environments, absence of fairness, and conflicts of values. "These six areas offer several entry points into what we can do a little different to create a better, healthier, improved workplace to support the kind of things we want to achieve," she states.

There are many possibilities, within all six areas, to improve the "good fit" between people and their job. These changes can be small, inexpensive, and customizable. They can be done with teams, groups, or units (rather than just with individuals).

Maslach has found that the right path to a healthy workplace is a combination of: sustainable workload, choice and control, recognition and reward, supportive work community, fairness, respect and social justice, clear values and meaningful work.

A healthy job environment takes care of both the worker and the workplace, so that the former will thrive and the latter will succeed. "Even if you bought the most beautiful plant, if you put it in a lousy pot with not much soil, no sun, and little water, it's not going to thrive – no matter how good the plant was to begin with," says Maslach.

Burnout isn't an issue that will resolve itself in a matter of days. It takes time, but if everyone involved makes an effort to incorporate a few of these steps in the company, everybody will be far better equipped to handle workplace stress and exhaustion.

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash 

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