The science on burnout

The science on burnout
Photo by Anne Nygård / Unsplash

I burned out so completely building my last startup that hitting full-eject from my work, partnership and home seemed like the only sane action.

After finding peace of mind again, I became curious about the experience because I had witnessed versions of it in my career but never really understood it.

Despite the litany of hot takes from commentators and the mass media, burnout is a well-understood field with over 40 years of study.

It suffers a lack of recognition because the self-assessment model used is behind a paywall and because there is no simple diagram to make sense of it.

(Note this useful piece came out early during pandemic lockdowns that was likely skimmed without action by most of its readers - yours truly included.)

I hope that laying out what I have learned since can protect you and the people around you from burning out.

The science

What Ivan Pavlov was to understanding conditioning, Christina Maslach is to understanding workplace burnout.

She designed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) - the model cited in 90% of all subsequent research on the topic and deemed to be 90% accurate in its clinical validity.

This is the gold standard!

The WHO borrows language on burnout from Maslach, though she is not directly cited.

What's in it

Burnout is on the opposite end of the spectrum from engagement - only 21% of workers report being engaged at work, so we have lots of reason to understand where we are apart.

Through 22 questions answered on a 7-point scale, the MBI gives a score on 3 dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and personal accomplishment.

The survey takes 10 minutes and costs $15 (sample results here).

That investment returns a clear assessment that anybody can understand - the respondent, a teammate or a leader. It is not worded in jargon that requires the interpretation of a Phd.

What it gives

Thankfully, the MBI offers an assessment for where the gaps are, and what areas require focus so it is immediately actionable.

The spectrum of results are:

  • Burnout: negative scores on exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy
  • Overextended: strong negative score on exhaustion only
  • Ineffective: strong negative score on professional efficacy only
  • Disengaged: strong negative score on cynicism only
  • Engagement: strong positive scores on exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy

The broader research on burnout forces us to reconsider that we are emotional beings more than machines. Maslach's research describes 6 burnout triggers:

  • Lack of control
  • Values conflict
  • Insufficient reward
  • Unfairness
  • Breakdown in community
  • Work overload

Glancing at this list helps us understand that our usual workplace strategy of scaling back work or calling snap social engagements might be missing most of the reason our teammates are at risk of burning out.

"Sucking it up" could be sucking the life out of people who might desperately want to contribute.

What's next

In the MBI, we have a way to check on the health of our team members that can be used in tandem with other goal-setting processes. It seems reasonable that as we are planning our next milestones, we take an assessment of what resources we have to work with.

During times of upheaval, it’s also useful to revisit why the team is together, and appreciate that everyone has a different calculus for being there.

A model I’ve used as a manager and employee is the Tour of Duty, which allows for an objective conversation on what each party wants and that either party can call forward to facilitate a discussion.

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If we are expected to bring our whole selves to work, we must also have a forum for discussions that factors in our mental health because nothing that puts it at long-term risk is worth doing.

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Jamie Larson
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