During the past four decades, our research has taught us a lot about what job burnout is, what it’s not, and how best to respond to it. Here’s the conventional view of burnout: people tend to believe it’s an individual problem, like an illness or a shortcoming, and that the solution is to help employees cope more effectively with the job demands. But our newest research uncovered something quite different.
Burnout has as much to do with job conditions as with personal factors, and when there’s a mismatch between a person and their job, there’s a greater risk of burnout. In other words, burnout is a relationship problem between workers and the workplace. And that changes everything about how it should be addressed.
Once we recognize the mutual connection between the person and the job, we can then ask why people are experiencing burnout, rather than who is burning out. We can then discover the causes of burnout, and not simply the effects. As with any problem, a focus on causes leads to prevention—and goes far beyond just coping.
Why burnout is a relationship problem, not an individual one
Although the term burnout gets used widely and casually, the World Health Organization provided a definition in 2019 for the problem. It describes burnout as a response to chronic job stressors that haven’t been successfully managed. This means that, first and foremost, burnout is a management issue—by teams, managers, or employees—with the optimistic goal of minimizing or eliminating those chronic pebbles in the shoe.
The high-frequency nature of job stressors means that it’s harder for people to recover well from dealing with them. If these chronic job stressors are not managed well, then there will be subsequent negative outcomes, such as productivity issues (including poor performance, errors, absenteeism, and turnover) and health issues (like physical and mental illness, disability, and insurance costs). So coping won’t be enough. It’s prevention that’s needed.
The core areas that can lead to burnout
Chronic job stressors emerge from job-person mismatches that reflect basic human needs, such as competence, belongingness, and psychological safety. These mismatches can occur in six core areas, which can apply to all people, regardless of their job.
- In workload, like facing high demands, but inadequate resources to meet them
- In control, like having little or no say about the work they do
- In reward, like receiving no positive feedback or recognition for good work
- In community, like a socially toxic culture of negative experiences with colleagues
- In fairness, like an absence of unbiased job conditions where workers are treated inequitably
- In values, like finding ethical conflicts and moral dilemmas on the job
To prevent burnout, make better matches between your team and the work they do
There are processes by which positive improvements, and better matches, can be accomplished in these six areas, which we have discussed in our book. But the success of any changes to create better matches will depend on employee buy-in and willingness to make these changes work. Those hinge on what we call the three Cs: collaborating, customizing, and committing.
- Collaborate. Leaders should not act unilaterally on their own conclusions about what would help. Instead, they should ask employees to be a part of making things better. Solicit ideas and feedback on various alternatives, and then listen to what people contribute. If employees do not see the potential benefit of a proposed change, it will not happen.
- Customize. Critically examine best practices observed to be working in other organizations or proposed by others. The basic idea may be good, but the implementation is critical: how to make it yours. In reality, one size doesn’t fit all, and there must be thoughtful adaptation of proposed changes to each local culture and occupation.
- Commit. Give sustained effort to achieving positive improvements, with cycles of making constructive interventions, evaluating their results, and proceeding with further modifications. The work toward creating better job-person matches may not succeed at first, but it’s important that the people of the organization keep on trying until they get it right.
This new management mindset is the first step to eliminate mismatches. Once every workplace is led with this type of thinking, we’ll be empowered to prevent burnout—and make every workplace a better environment in which workers thrive, rather than being beaten down.
Christina Maslach, Ph.D. and Michael P. Leiter, Ph.D. are the co-authors of The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs (Harvard University Press, 2022).