How companies cause burnout in their workers

Anyone who has ever held a job before knows about burnout, either by experiencing it themselves or by watching someone else succumb to it. I’ve touched on it briefly in previous work where before when I discussed how to reduce stress in one’s life.

For this week’s column, however, I want to take a deeper look at burnout, specifically its causes. To do so, I will be turning to an influential 2001 research paper, titled “Job Burnout”, published in the US-based psychology journal Annual Review of Psychology (ARP) by Christina Maslach, Wilmar B Schaufeli, and Michael P Leiter. I strongly recommend you give it a read as it is very interesting.

Before we examine the causes, let us first understand what we mean when we talk about burnout.

For Maslach et al, burnout is a negative reaction to workplace conditions that results in three key symptoms: exhaustion, both physical and emotional; depersonalisation, where one attempts to distance themselves emotionally and cognitively from their work, and; reduced effectiveness, where the combination of the other two symptoms prevent one from working at one’s their full capacity.

The paper spends a great deal of time analysing these symptoms and how they manifest in different people or environments but what we’re interested in this week is in one of the final sections of the paper, sub-titled “Expanding the Theoretical Framework: The Person within Context”.

In this section, the authors list six key factors that contribute to burnout. Described as “mismatches”, these are: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.
What’s interesting about these factors is that they’re all mostly related to a company’s organisational structure rather than individual issues. As they say in the paper, “burnout is more of a social phenomenon than an individual one”.

BREAKING POINT: The way a company is organised plays a major role in occupational burnout among workers
Picture: FILE

The first factor, workload, is pretty self-explanatory. For Maslach et al, burnout can occur when there is a “mismatch in workload”, usually in the form of excessive overload. This can occur for a number reasons.

Maybe workers simply don’t have the resources necessary to handle the workload required of them. This can be seen when companies continually downsize without altering the expected output. As a result, each worker finds themselves having to perform the work of two, then three, then four, etc.

They may also simply lack the tools needed, such as proper equipment or transport, which means they have to work that much harder.

The next mismatch is one of control, which Maslach et al say occurs when “individuals have insufficient control over the resources needed to do their work or have insufficient authority to pursue the work in what they believe is the most effective manner”.

Basically, if a worker feels like they have no say in how their job is performed – for example, their boss constantly micro-manages them – then this contributes to both emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation.

After all, it’s hard to feel passionate about a job when you’re reduced to the role of a mindless automaton whose only task is to follow orders.

Next is the mismatch in rewards. While the most obvious form of this mismatch is financial, for example when . workers are not paid a fair wage for their work, it also involves other forms of rewards.

Social rewards, for example, are when a worker feels their work is noticed and appreciated by others. While this could be colleagues congratulating each one another on a job well done, Maslach et al stress that it is important that supervisors also acknowledge their workers.
After all, “lack of support from supervisors is especially important, even more so than support from co-workers”.

If a supervisor is dismissive or overly negative, it seriously contributes to burnout in workers.

Community is the fourth mismatch identified and occurs when workers are isolated from their colleagues or customers. According to Maslach et al, “people thrive in community and function best when they share praise, comfort, happiness, and humour with people they like and respect”.

However, some jobs force (or even encourage) their workers to operate in isolation either due to the nature of their tasks or as a result of the other factors mentioned previously.
This isolation creates a negative workplace environment which can contribute to conflict between co-workers and even outright hostility.

Next on the list of mismatches is fairness which “communicates respect and confirms people’s self-worth”. Unfairness can take many forms, such as an imbalance of pay/workload, theft of credit, or the mistreatment of complaints by superiors.

Unfairness in the workplace contributes to burnout in two ways: firstly, experiencing unfair treatment is a serious drain on one’s physical and emotional reserves. Secondly, unfairness fosters cynicism within in the workplace, increasing depersonalisation and promoting conflict between co-workers.

The final mismatch listed by Maslach et al is one of values. Again, this can take many forms. In some cases, workers may be forced to do things which they perceive to be unethical, such as lying to customers in order to make a sale.

Other times, workers may feel a conflict between their own personal/career aspirations and the values of the organisation they work for. Workers can also experience conflict between the publicly stated goals of an organisation, which are often progressive, and the actual behaviour of the organisation.

According to Maslach et al, it is these six “mismatches” or a combination thereof which are the main causes of occupational burnout in workers.

Of course, they don’t dismiss individual concerns outright and encourage individuals workers to practisce useful stress-management techniques. However, at the end of the day, relying on individual-focused solutions only help to alleviate the symptoms of burnout.

The most effective way to avoid burnout is for companies to seriously reconsider the way they organise their workplace and to involve their workers in the process.


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