Holiday Replay Edition – Burnout Isn’t a Sign of Weakness with Dr. Christina Maslach, PhD

Episode Summary

Dr. Christina Maslach, PhD, is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, where she’s taught for nearly 50 years. During that time, she also had an eight-year stint as Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning. Dr. Maslach holds a bachelor of arts degree from Harvard and earned her doctor of philosophy degree in psychology from Stanford University. She’s also written several books about burnout at work. Join Corey and Dr. Maslach as they talk about employee burnout, how burnout is common in people-facing positions and why it’s not a sign of weakness, how burnout is an occupational risk factor but is not by itself a mental health issue, how burnout can lead to physical health problems and mental health issues, the impact the pandemic has had on employee burnout, how some folks think burnout is the malady of the century, how people are working harder at home to increase the chances they keep their jobs, the genesis of the term “burnout,” and more. This Holiday Replay episode of Screaming in the Cloud originally aired June 29th, 2021.

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Christina

Christina Maslach, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology (Emerita) and a researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley.  She received her A.B. from Harvard, and her Ph.D. from Stanford.  She is best known as the pioneering researcher on job burnout, producing the standard assessment tool (the Maslach Burnout Inventory, MBI), books, and award-winning articles.  The impact of her work is reflected by the official recognition of burnout, as an occupational phenomenon with health consequences, by the World Health Organization in 2019.  In 2020, she received the award for Scientific Reviewing, for her writing on burnout, from the National Academy of Sciences.  Among her other honors are: Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1991 -- "For groundbreaking work on the application of social psychology to contemporary problems"), Professor of the Year (1997), and the 2017 Application of Personality and Social Psychology Award (for her research career on job burnout).  



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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. One subject that I haven’t covered in much depth on this show has been a repeated request from the audience, and that is to talk a bit about burnout. So, when I asked the audience who I should talk to about burnout, there were really two categories of responses. The first was, “Pick me. I hate my job, and I’d love to talk about that.” And the other was, “You should speak to Professor Maslach.” Christina Maslach is a Professor of Psychology at Berkeley. She’s a teacher and a researcher, particularly in the area of burnout. Professor, welcome to the show.

Dr. Maslach: Well, thank you for inviting me.

Corey: So, I’m going to assume from the outset that the reason that people suggest that I speak to you about burnout is because you’ve devoted a significant portion of your career to studying the phenomenon, and not just because you hate your job and are ready to go do something else. Is that directionally correct?

Dr. Maslach: That is directionally correct, yes. I first stumbled upon the phenomenon back in the 1970s—which is, you know, 45, almost 
50 years ago now—and have been fascinated with trying to understand what is going on.

Corey: So, let’s start at the very beginning because I’m not sure in, I guess, the layperson context that I use the term that I fully understand it. What is burnout?

Dr. Maslach: Well, burnout as we have been studying it over many years, it’s a stress phenomenon, okay, it’s a response to stressors, but it’s not just the exhaustion of stress. That’s one component of it, but it actually has two other components that go along with it. One is this very negative, cynical, hostile attitude toward the job and the other people in it, you know, “Take this job and shove it,” kind of feeling. And usually, people don’t begin their job like that, but that’s where they go if they become more burned out.

Corey: I believe you may have just inadvertently called out a decent proportion of the tech sector.

Dr. Maslach: [laugh].

Corey: Or at least, that might just be my internal cynicism rising to the foreground.

Dr. Maslach: No, it’s not. Actually, I have heard from a number of tech people over the past decades about just this kind of issue. And so I think it’s particularly relevant. The third component that we see going along with this, it usually comes in a little bit later, but I’ve heard a lot about this from tech people as well, and that is that you begin to develop a very negative sense of your own self, and competence, and where you’re going, and what you’re able to do. So, the stress response of exhaustion, the negative cynicism towards the job, the negative evaluation of yourself, that’s the trifecta of burnout.

Corey: You’ve spent a lot of your early research at least focusing on, I guess, occupations that you could almost refer to as industrial, in some respects: working with heavy equipment, working with a variety of different professionals in very stressful situations. It feels weird, on some level, to say, “Oh, yeah, my job is very stressful. In that vein, I have to sit in front of a computer all day, and sometimes I have to hop on a meeting with people.” And it feels, on some level, like that even saying, “I’m experiencing burnout,” in my role is a bit of an overreach.

Dr. Maslach: Yeah, that’s an interesting point because, in fact, yes, when we think about OSHA, you know, and occupational risks and hazards, we do think about the chemicals, and the big equipment, and the hazards, so having more psychological and social risk factors, is something that probably a lot of people don’t resonate to immediately and think, well, if you’re strong, and if you’re resilient, and whatever, you can—anybody can handle that, and that’s really a test almost of your ability to do your work. But what we’re finding is that it has its own hazards, psychological and social as well. And so, burnout is something that we’ve seen in a lot of more people-oriented professions, from the beginning. Healthcare has had this for a long time. Various kinds of social services, teaching, all of these other things. So, it’s actually not a sign of weakness as some people might think.

Corey: Right. And that’s part of the challenge and, honestly, one of the reasons that I’ve stayed away from having in-depth discussions about the topic of burnout on the show previously is it feels that—rightly or wrongly, and I appreciate your feedback on this one either way—it feels like it’s approaching the limits of what could be classified as mental health. And I can give terrible advice on how computers work—in fact, I do on a regular basis; it’s kind of my thing—and that’s usually not going to have any lasting impact on people who don’t see through the humor part of that. But when we start talking about mental health, I’m cautious because it feels like an inadvertent story or advice that works for some but not all, has the potential to do a tremendous bit of damage, and I’m very cautious about that. Is burnout a mental health issue? Is it a medical issue that is recognized? Where does it start, okay does it stop on that spectrum?

Dr. Maslach: It is not a medical issue—and the World Health Organization, which just came out with a statement about this in 2019 on burnout, they’re recognizing it as an occupational risk factor—made it very clear that this is not a medical thing. It is not a medical disease, it doesn’t have a certain set of medical diagnoses, although people tend to sometimes go there. Can it have physical health outcomes? In other words, if you’re burning out and you’re not sleeping well, and you’re not eating well, and not taking care of yourself, do you begin to impair your physical health down the road? Yes.

Could it also have mental health outcomes, that you begin to feel depressed, and anxious, and not knowing what to do, and afraid of the future? Yes, it could have those outcomes as well. So, it certainly is kind of like—I can put it this way, like a stepping stone in a path to potential negative health: physical health, or mental health issues. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it is so important. But unfortunately, a lot of people still view it as somebody who’s burned out isn’t tough enough, strong enough, they’re wimpy, they’re not good enough, they’re not a hundred percent.

And so the stigma that is often attached to burnout, people not only indulge it, but they feel it directed towards them, and often they will try to hide the kinds of experiences they’re having because they worry that they are going to be judged negatively, thrown under the bus, you know, let go from the job, whatever, if they talk about what’s actually happening with them.

Corey: What do you see, as you look around, I guess, the wide varieties of careers that are susceptible to burnout—which I have a sneaking suspicion based upon what you’ve said rounds to all of them—what do you think is the most misunderstood, or misunderstood aspects of burnout?

Dr. Maslach: I think what’s most misunderstood is that people assume that it is a problem of the individual person. And if somebody is burned out, then they’ve got to just take care of themselves, or take a break, or eat better, or get more sleep, all of those kinds of things which cope with stressors. What’s not as well understood or focused on is the fact that this is a response to other stressors, and these stressors are often in the workplace—this is where I’ve been studying it—but in essentially in the larger social, physical environment that people are functioning in. They’re not burning out all by themselves.

There’s a reason why they are feeling the kind of exhaustion, developing that cynicism, beginning to doubt themselves, that we see with burnout. So there, if you ever want to talk about preventing burnout, you really have to be focusing on what are the various kinds of things that seem to be causing the problem, and how do we modify those? Coping with stressors is a good thing, but it doesn’t change the stressors. And so we really have to look at that, as well as what people can bring about, you know, taking care of themselves or trying to do the job better or differently.

Corey: I feel like it’s impossible to have a conversation like this without acknowledging the background of the past year that many of us have spent basically isolated, working from home. And for some folks, okay, they were working from home before, but it feels different now. At least that’s the position I find myself in. Other folks are used to going into an office and now they’re either isolated—and research shows that it has been worse, statistically, for single people versus married people, but married people are also trapped at home with their spouse, which sounds half-joking but it is very real. At some point, distance is useful.

And it feels like everyone is sort of a bit at their wit’s end. It feels like things are closer to being frayed, there’s a constant sense that there’s this, I guess, pervasive dread for the past year. Are you seeing that that has a potential to affect how burnout is being expressed or perceived?

Dr. Maslach: I think it has, and one of the things that we clearly see is that people are using the word burnout, more and more and more and more. It’s almost becoming the word du jour, and using it to describe, things are going wrong and it’s not good. And it may be overstretching the use of burnout, but I think the reason of the popularity of the term is that it has this kind of very vivid imagery of things going up in smoke, and can’t handle it, and flames licking at your heels, and all this sort of stuff so that they can do that. I even got a comment from a colleague in France just a few days ago, where they’re talking about, “Is burnout the malady of the century?” you know, kind of thing. And it’s being used a lot; it’s sometimes maybe overused, but I think it’s also striking a chord with people as a sign that things are going badly, and I don’t know how to deal with it in some way.

Corey: It also feels, on some level, for those of us who are trapped inside, it kind of almost feels like it’s a tremendous expression of privilege because who am I to have a problem with this? Oh, I have to go inside and order a lot of takeout and spend time with my family. And I look at how folks who are nowhere near as privileged have to go and be essential workers and show up in increasingly dangerous positions. And it almost feels like burnout isn’t something that I’m entitled to, if that makes sense.

Dr. Maslach: [laugh]. Yeah. It’s an interesting description of that because I think there are ways in which people are looking at their experience and dealing with it, and like many things in life, I find that all of these things are a bit of a double-edged sword; there’s positive and there’s negative aspects to them. And so when I’ve talked with some people about now having to work from home rather than working in their office, they’re also bringing up, “Well, hey, I’ve noticed that the interviews I’m doing with potential clients are actually going a little better”—you know, this is from a law office—“And trying to figure out how—are we doing it differently so that people can actually relate to each other as human beings instead of the suit and tie in the big office? What’s going on in terms of how we’re doing the work that there may be actually a benefit here?”

For others. It’s been, “Oh, my gosh. I don’t have to commute, but endless meetings and people are thinking I’m not doing my job, and I don’t know how to get in touch, and how do we work together effectively?” And so there’s other things that are much more difficult, in some sense. I think another thing that you have to keep in mind that it’s not just about how you’re doing your work, perhaps differently, or you’re under different circumstances, but people, so many people have lost their jobs, and are worried that they may lose their jobs.

That we’re actually finding that people are going into overdrive and working harder and more hours as a way of trying to protect from being the next one who won’t have any income at all. So, there’s a lot of other dynamics that are going on as a result of the pandemic, I think, that we need to be aware of.

Corey: One thing that I’d like to point out is that you are a Professor Emerita of Psychology at Berkeley, which means you presumably wound up formulating this based upon significant bodies of peer-reviewed research, as opposed to just coming up with a thesis, stating it as if it were fact, and then writing an entire series of books on it. I mean, that path, I believe, is called being a venture capitalist, but I may be mistaken on that front. How do you effectively study something like burnout? It feels like it is so subjective and situation-specific, but it has to have a normalization aspect to it.

Dr. Maslach: Uh, yeah, that’s a good point. I think, in fact, the first time I ever wrote about some of the stuff that I was learning about burnout back in the mid ’70s—I think it was ’75, ’76 maybe—and it was in a magazine, it wasn’t in a journal. It wasn’t peer-reviewed because not even peer-reviewed journals would review this; they thought it was pop psychology, and eh. So, I would get, in those days, snail mail by the sackfuls from people saying, “Oh, my God. I didn’t know anybody else felt like this. Let me tell you my story.”

You know, kind of thing. And so that was really, after doing a lot of interviews with people, following them on the job when possible to, sort of, see how things were going, and then writing about the basic themes that were coming out of this, it turned out that there were a lot of people who responded and said, “I know that. I’ve been there. I’m experiencing it.” Even though each of them were sort of thinking, “I’m the only one. What’s wrong with me? Everybody else seems fine.”

And so part of the research in trying to get it out in whatever form you can is trying to share it because that gives you feedback from a wide variety of people, not only the peers reviewing the quality of the research, but the people who are actually trying to figure out how to deal effectively with this problem. So it’s, how do I and my colleagues actually have a bigger, broader conversation with people from which we learn a lot, and then try and say, okay, and here’s everything we’ve heard, and let’s throw it back out and share it and see what people think.

Corey: You have written several books on the topic, if I’m not mistaken. And one thing that surprises me is how much what you talk about in those books seems to almost transcend time. I believe your first was published in 1982—

Dr. Maslach: Right.

Corey: —if I’m not mistaken—

Dr. Maslach: Yes.

Corey: —and it’s an awful lot of what it talks about still feels very much like it could be written today. Is this just part of the quintessential human experience? Or has nothing new changed in the last 200 years since the Industrial Revolution? How is it progressing, if at all, and what does the future look like?

Dr. Maslach: Great questions and I don’t have a good answer for you. But we have sort of struggled with this because if you look at older literature, if you even go back centuries, if you even go back in parts of the Bible or something, you’re seeing phrases and descriptions sometime that says sounds a lot like burnout, although we’re not using that term. So, it’s not something that I think just somehow got invented; it wasn’t invented in the ’70s or anything like that. But trying to trace back those roots and get a better sense of what are we capturing here is fascinating, and I think we’re still working on it.

People have asked, well, where did the term ‘burnout’ as opposed to other kinds of terms come from? And it’s been around for a while, again, before the ’70s or something. I mean, we have Graham Greene writing the novel A Burnt-Out Case, back in the early ’60s. My dad was an engineer, rarefied gas dynamics, so he was involved with the space program and engineers talk about burnout all the time: ball bearings burn out, rocket boosters burn out. And when they started developing Silicon Valley, all those little startups and enterprises, they advertised as burnout shops. And that was, you know, ’60s, into the ’70s, et cetera, et cetera. So, the more modern roots, I think probably have some ties to that use of the term before I and other researchers even got started with it.

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Corey: This is one of those questions that is incredibly self-serving, and I refuse to apologize for it. How can I tell whether I’m suffering from burnout, versus I’m just a jerk with an absolutely terrible attitude? And that is not as facetious a question as it probably sounds like.

Dr. Maslach: [laugh]. Yeah. Well, part of the problem for me—or the challenge for me—is to understand what it is people need to know about themselves. Can I take a diagnostic test which tells me if I am burned out or if I’m something else?

Sort of the more important question is, what is feeling right and what is not feeling so good—or even wrong—about my experience? And usually, you can’t figure that all out by yourself and you need to get other input from other people. And it could be a counselor or therapist, or it could be friends or colleagues who you have to be able to get to a point where we can talk about it, and hear each other, and get some feedback without putdowns, just sort of say, “Yeah, have you ever thought about the fact that when you get this kind of a task, you usually just go crazy for a while and not really settle down and figure out what you really need to do as opposed to what you think you have to do?” Part of this, are you bringing yourself in terms of the stress response, but what is it that you’re not doing—or that you’re doing not well—to figure out solutions, to get help or advice or better input from others. So, it takes time, but it really does take a lot of that kind of social feedback.

So, when I said—if I can stay with it a little bit more—when I first was writing and publishing about and all these people were writing back saying, “I thought I was the only one,” that phenomenon of putting on a happy face and not letting anybody else see that you’re going through some difficult challenges, or feeling bad, or depressed, or whatever is something we call pluralistic ignorance; means we don’t have good knowledge about what is normal, or what is being shared, or how other people are because we’re all pretending to put on the happy face, to pretend and make sure that everybody thinks we’re okay and is not going to come after us. But if we all do that, then we all, together, are creating a different social reality that people perceive rather than actually what is happening behind that mask.

Corey: It feels, on some level, like this is an aspect of the social media problem, where we’re comparing our actual lives and all the bloopers that we see to other people’s highlight reels because few people wind up talking very publicly about their failures.

Dr. Maslach: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And often for good reason because they know they will be attacked and dumped. And there could be some serious consequences, and you just say, “I’m going to figure out what I’m going to do on my own.”

But one of the things that when I work with people, and I’m asking them, “What do you think would help? What sort of things that don’t happen could happen?” And so forth, one of the things that goes to the top of the list is having somebody else; a safe relationship, a safe place where we can talk, where we can unburden, where you’re not going to spill the beans to everybody else, and you’re getting advice, or you’re getting a pat on the back, or a shoulder to cry on, and that you’re there for them for the same kind of reason. So, it’s a different form of what we think of as social network. It used to be that a network like that meant that you had other people, whether family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, whoever, that you knew, you could go to; a mentor, an advisor, a trusted ally, and that you would perform that role for them and other people, as well.

And what has happened, I think, to add to the emphasis on burnout these days, is that those social connections, those trusts, between people has really been shredding, and, you know—or cut off or broken apart. And so people are feeling isolated, even if they’re surrounded by a lot of other people, don’t want to raise their hand, don’t want to say, “Can we talk over coffee? I’m really having a bad day. I need some help to figure out this problem.” And so one of those most valuable resources that human beings need—which is other people—is, if we’re working in environments where that gets pulled apart, and shredded, and it’s lacking, that’s a real risk factor for burnout.

Corey: What are the things that contribute to burnout? It doesn’t feel, based upon what you’ve said so far, that it’s one particular thing. There has to be points of commonality between all of this, I have to imagine.

Dr. Maslach: Yeah.

Corey: Is it possible to predict that, oh, this is a scenario in which either I or people who are in this role are likely to become burned out faster?

Dr. Maslach: Mm-hm. Yeah. Good question and I don’t know if we have a final answer, but at this point, in terms of all the research that’s been done, not just on burnout, but on much larger issues of health, and wellbeing, and stress, and coping, and all the rest of it, there are clearly six areas in which the fit between people and their job environment are critical. And if the fit is—or the match, or the balance—is better, they are going to be at less risk for burnout, they’re more likely to be engaged with work.

But if some real bad fits, or mismatches, occur in one or more of these areas, that raises the risk factor for burnout. So, if I can just mention those six quickly. And these are not in any particular order because I find that people assume the first one is the worst or the best, and it’s not. Any rate, one of them has to do with that social environment I was just talking about; think of it as the workplace community. All the people whose paths you cross at various points—you know, coworkers, the people you supervise, your bosses, et cetera—so those social relationships, that culture, do you have a supportive environment which really helps people thrive? Can you trust people, there’s respect, and all that kind of thing going on? Or is it really what people are now describing as a socially toxic work environment?

A second area has to do with reward. And it turns out not so much salary and benefits, it’s more about social recognition and the intrinsic reward you get from doing a good job. So, if you work hard, do some special things, and nothing positive happens—nobody even pats you on the back, nobody says, “Gee, why don’t you try this new project? I think you’re really good at it,” anything that acknowledges what you’ve done—it’s a very difficult environment to work in. People who are more at risk of burnout, when I asked them, “What is a good day for you? A good day. A really good day.” And the answer is often, “Nothing bad happens.” But it’s not the presence of good stuff happening, like people glad that you did such good work or something like that.

Third area has to do with values—and this is one that also often gets ignored, but sometimes this is the critical bottom line—that you’re doing work that you think is meaningful, where you’re working has integrity, and you’re in line with that as opposed to value conflicts where you’re doing things that you think are wrong: “I want to help people, I want to help cure patients, and here, I’m actually only supposed to be trying to help the hospital get more money.” When they have that kind of value conflict, this is often where they have to say, “I don’t want to sell my soul and I’m leaving.”

The fourth area is one of fairness. And this is really about that whatever the policies, the principles, et cetera, they’re administered fairly. So, when things are going badly here—the mismatch—this is where discrimination lives, this is where glass ceilings are going on, that people are not being treated fairly in terms of the work they do, how they’re promoted, or all of those kinds of things. So, that interpersonal respect, and, sort of, social justice is missing.

The next two areas—the fifth and six—are probably the two that had been the most well-known for a long time. One has to do with workload and how manageable it is. Given the demands that you have, do you have sufficient resources, like time, and tools, and whatever other kind of teams support you need to get the job done. And control is about the amount of autonomy and the opportunities you have to perhaps improvise, or innovate, or correct, or figure out how to do the job better in some way. So, when people are having mismatches in work overload; a lack of control; you cannot improvise; where you have unfairness; where there is values that are just incompatible with what you believe is right, a sort of moral issue; where you’re not getting any kind of positive feedback, even when it’s deserved, for the kind of work you’re doing; and when you’re working in a socially toxic relationship where you can’t trust people, you don’t know who to turn to, people are having unresolved conflicts all the time. Those six areas are, those are the markers really of risk factors for burnout.

Corey: I know that I’m looking back through my own career history listening to you recount those and thinking, “Oh, maybe I wasn’t just a terrible employee in every one of those situations.”

Dr. Maslach: Exactly.

Corey: I’m sure a lot of it did come from me, I want to be very clear here. But there’s also that aspect of this that might not just be a ‘me’ 

Dr. Maslach: Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it. It’s really in some sense, it’s more of a ‘we’ problem than a ‘me’ problem. Because again, you’re not working in isolation, and the reciprocal relationship you have with other people, and other policies, and other things that are happening in whatever workplace that is, is creating a kind of larger environment in which you and many others are functioning.

And we’ve seen instances where people begin to make changes in that environment—how do we do this differently? How can we do this better, let’s try it out for a while and see if this can work—and using those six areas, the value is not just, “Oh, it’s really in bad shape. We have huge unfairness issues.” But then it says, “It would be better if we could figure out a way to get rid of that fairness problem, or to make a modification so that we have a more fair process on that.” So, they’re like guideposts as well.

As people start thinking through these six areas, you can sort of say, “What’s working well, in terms of workload, what’s working badly? Where do we run into problems on control? How do we improve the social relationships between colleagues who have to work together on a team?” They’re not just markers of what’s gone wrong, but they can—if you flip it around and look at it, let’s look at the other end—okay is a path that we could get better? Make it right?

Corey: If people want to learn more about burnout in general, and you’re working in it specifically, where can they go to find your work and learn more about what you have to say?

Dr. Maslach: Obviously, there’s been a lot of articles, and now lots of things on the web, and in past books that I’ve written. And as you said, in many ways, they are still pretty relevant. The Truth About Burnout came out, oh gosh, ’97. So, that’s 25 years ago and it’s still work.

But my colleague, Michael Leiter from Canada, and I have just written up a new manuscript for a new book in which we really are trying to focus on sharing everything we have learned about, you know, what burnout has taught us, and put that into a format of a book that will allow people to really take what we’ve learned and figure out how does this apply? How can this be customized to our situation? So, I’m hoping that that will be coming out within the next year.

Corey: And you are, of course, welcome back to discuss your book when it releases.

Dr. Maslach: I would be honored if you would have me back. That would be a wonderful treat.

Corey: Absolutely. But in return, I do expect a pre-release copy of the manuscript, so I have something intelligent to talk about.

Dr. Maslach: [laugh]. Of course, of course.

Corey: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Maslach: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to share this, especially during these times.

Corey: Indeed. Professor Christina Maslach, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Berkeley, I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice along with an insulting comment telling me why you’re burned out on this show.

Corey: If your AWS bill keeps rising and your blood pressure is doing the same, then you need The Duckbill Group. We help companies fix their AWS bill by making it smaller and less horrifying. The Duckbill Group works for you, not AWS. We tailor recommendations to your business and we get to the point. Visit to get started.

Announcer: This has been a HumblePod production. Stay humble.
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