Burnout: It’s a word that gets thrown around often, especially among busy, working professionals: “If things around here don’t slow down soon, I’m headed for burnout!”.
The truth, however, is that a busy schedule alone isn’t enough to trigger professional burnout.
Christina Maslach, creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, and author of The Truth About Burnout, has identified six “mismatches” that make a person more likely to burn out – and only one of these factors is too much work: “[I]t is a common belief that there is just one dimension to job stress, work overload. Indeed, overload is often considered to be a synonym for stress. But in our burnout model, overload is only one of six mismatches in the workplace. And it’s not always the most critical, especially it things are going well in some of the other areas.”
This post will look at Maslach’s six mismatches, and offer suggestions for how to compensate for them in order to avoid professional burnout.
1. Lack of Control
In order to feel satisfied and competent in our jobs, we need to have a sense that we’re in control of our tasks and their outcomes. If we haven’t been given an appropriate level of responsibility, or if we don’t have access to the tools or resources needed to do our jobs well, we can easily start to feel out of control.
According to Maslach, a lack of control can lead to a job that’s in direct conflict with our own values: “Control problems occur when workers have insufficient authority over their work or are unable to shape the work environment to be consistent with their values. A sense of efficacy is unlikely to occur when workers are feeling buffeted by circumstances or powerful people within the organization.”
What to do about it: If you’re feeling stifled in your current role, consider asking your employer for more autonomy or responsibility. If you’re feeling undereducated or undertrained, take steps to learn new skills or hone existing ones. If you’re experiencing any ambiguity about your role or responsibilities, be proactive and clarify exactly what’s expected of you.
2. Insufficient Reward
While we often think of rewards in monetary terms, but workplace rewards can involve anything that makes the day-to-day flow of work satisfying. This could certainly be financial rewards (high pay, good benefits), but can also be social rewards (recognition from those around you) and intrinsic rewards (the feeling that you’re doing a good job).
If you’re lacking in any of these three areas – monetary, social, or intrinsic rewards – you’re more likely to feel dissatisfied with your work and may be more susceptible to burnout.
What to do about it: Maslach believes that burnout is more likely when your rewards don’t match your expectations. If it’s within your power to request and receive increased rewards (a raise, recognition for a job well done, etc.), that’s a great first step. If this isn’t possible, however, it may be helpful to adjust your expectations. Can you find intrinsic meaning from knowing you did the job well? Can you look to peers for recognition rather than to your superior?
3. Lack of Community
A strong sense of community is characterized by good team work, low levels of conflict and positive social interactions. According to Maslach, a healthy community is necessary to mediate the stresses of work: “People thrive in community and function best when they share praise, comfort, happiness, and humor with people they like and respect. In addition to emotional exchange and instrumental assistance, this kind of social support reaffirms a person’s membership in a group with a shared sense of values.”
What to do about it: If your workplace is lacking a sense of community, ask yourself what you can do to increase positive social interactions with colleagues. Suggest ways to decrease conflict and office politics – or at the least, avoid participating in it. If you’re a solopreneur or work independently, take steps to surround yourself with like-minded individuals who can offer support and decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness.
4. Absence of Fairness
A perceived lack of fairness can lead to feelings of being disrespected or powerless in your current situation. Maslach identifies a number of situations that can lead to a sense of unfairness:
- Inequity in workload or pay
- Cheating in the workplace
- Inappropriate handling of promotions or evaluations
- Poor dispute resolution practices
Interestingly, Maslach points out that people are generally more concerned about the appearance of fairness (i.e. that a procedure is carried out fairly), than that the actual result is fair. We want to know that our superiors are doing their best to maintain a fair and equitable workplace; we’re not as concerned that the actual results are fair.
What to do about it: If you believe there’s inequity in the workplace, your best bet will be to bring it to the attention of your employer or colleagues. Suggest alternative strategies for handling disputes or disagreements, and encourage the use of standardized tools, scales and procedures to ensure a sense of fairness in the workplace.
5. Conflict in Values
A conflict in values occurs when your personal values and goals aren’t in line with those of the organization. An extreme example would be someone who has a strong belief in the humane treatment of animals working for a meat processing plant. Maslach writes, “Contributing to a meaningful personal goal is a powerful incentive for individuals. When this work contributes as well to the organizational mission, people may be rewarded with additional opportunities for meaningful work.”
What to do about: Maslach suggests two options for dealing with a conflict in values: either attempt to bring your personal values in line with those of the organization, or leave the organization and look for a more meaningful job. While smaller, less significant value mismatches can often be accommodated within your current job, finding an organization that supports similar values may be preferable.
6. Work Overload
Perhaps the factor most commonly associated with burnout, work overload is simply an unsustainable workload. Maslach defines it as “job demands exceeding human limits.” It may occur when the quantity of work exceeds the amount of time available, or when the job is simply too difficult given your current resources, skill set, or level of ability.
What to do about it: Sufficient time and opportunity to rest and recover from work overload is critical to avoiding burnout. Occasional tight deadlines and overwork shouldn’t lead to burnout if your workload is usually sustainable. Avoid chronic overwork, and build in non-negotiable times of recovery following particularly busy or stressful times.
Professional burnout is about far more than just working long hours. Mismatches between values, expectations, and resources all play a big part, but can often be avoided by taking the appropriate precautionary steps.
Are you on the path to professional burnout? What steps will you take to avoid it? Share below!