The Truth About Burnout


 

Christina Maslach & Michael Leiter have written an outstanding book about the problem of professional burnout, called The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What To Do About It. The authors have studied a variety of professionals, including social workers, nurses, and others in the so-called "helping professions."

 

"Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will--an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it's hard to recover ... What might happen if you begin to burn out? Actually three things happen: you become chronically exhausted; you become cynical and detached from your work; and you feel increasingly ineffective on the job."  --Maslach & Leiter, p. 17,  The Truth About Burnout (1997, Jossey-Bass Publishers).

Backed by solid research data, Maslach & Leiter assert that burnout is not a matter of weakness or poor attitude in individual employees. Rather it is a problem of the social environment in the workplace caused by "major mismatches" between the nature of the person doing a job and the nature of the job itself. The greater the mismatch, the greater the potential for burnout.

Below are some of the mismatches their research has revealed:

  • Overloaded work schedule: Too little time and too few resources to accomplish the job.

  • Lack of control: Reducing costs is primary over needs of clients or employees.

  • Breakdown of community: Faster paced work destroys the sense of community among coworkers, which further disrupts our job performance.

  • Unfair treatment of workers: If evaluations, promotions, and benefits are not applied fairly, the organization cannot be trusted by the employee.

  • Conflict of values: Performing tasks we feel are unethical or which go against our personal values undermines our ability to believe in the worth of the work we do.

In The Truth About Burnout, Maslach & Leiter identify the three dimensions of burnout as exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. The authors devote a significant portion of their book to the tremendous cost of burnout to an organization and to the individual worker. They include useful strategies to address burnout in an organization ... both from the top down and from the bottom up ... presented with useful case studies.

This is an outstanding book to read if you want to better understand the source of your burnout and what you can do about it within your work setting. It's not the basic goal assessment or stress management stuff often included in burnout books. It's a research-based presentation of the burnout problem. It is solution-focused with strategies to improve the social climate at work, which is the real source of your burnout.

 

 

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Revised: 04 Mar 2007