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Preventing Burnout in the Workplace

In their recent book, The Burnout Challenge, Managing People’s Relationship with Their Jobs (2022), Maslach and Leiter state their finding that burnout is a chronic condition with three aspects: exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness[1].

Common approaches to address burnout focus on the individual worker. These approaches have merit. Victor Frankl suggested that nothing enhances resilience more than “an awareness of a life task.”[2] In other words, people experience a state of flow when they enjoy using their gifts and aptitudes. Thus, rebuilding resilience in the workplace may involve developing new skills or getting advice from respected mentors.

Another helpful self-care strategy in the workplace involves developing good boundaries and communication skills. For example, people can suffer in silence if they do speak up when there are unreasonable workplace demands placed upon them. I have had more than one exhausted client talk about their numerous workplace responsibilities, but neglect to include themselves among the circle of those who are deserving of their care and attention.

But are self-care strategies enough to prevent burnout? Maslach and Leiter (2022) say “No.” The authors (2022) describe burnout as principally a problem in the relationship between the worker(s) and the workplace in the following three domains: capability (workload and control); social (rewards and community); and moral (fairness and values).

The researchers (2022) found five worker profiles: half the workforce is comprised of employees who are engaged (33%) or burned out (10-15%); the other half suffer from a mismatch with the workplace but do not meet the full criteria of burnout: overextended (15-20%); disengaged/ cynical (20%); and ineffective (15-20%).

Those who are burned out would benefit from a reduced workload, but they may also require support from counselling interventions such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy to address negative views of self and others. Overextended workers would benefit from a work tempo of low intensity (or at least a temporary change in tasks) to balance the high intensity that workers often experience in CAF.

The chain of command can support disengaged staff by re-building trust, and by addressing a values mismatch that disengaged workers commonly experience. Ineffective workers would benefit from rewards and from feeling a stronger sense of community in the workplace. The chain of command can canvas engaged personnel to determine what is working, and then to generalize those lessons to the wider team.

Maslach and Leiter (2022) helpfully describe burnout as a “we” problem. In the Appendix of their book is an assessment tool to help staff identify worker/ workplace mismatches. The authors (2022) recommend that teams collaboratively define what success looks like.

Then the idea is to start with small but meaningful action to address the annoying “pebble in the shoe” difficulties at work. New interventions should be balanced by subtracting/ redesigning workplace processes so as not to overload personnel. Create a timeline for new initiatives along with built-in checkpoints.

I witnessed an RSM one day implementing remedial measures with a member (not having to do with burnout). In urging the member to correct his deficiencies, the RSM pointed to the member’s chest and said, “you have to find it in here.” The same thing can be said to our whole organization when it comes to addressing the issue of burnout. We all need the heart and motivation to address workplace problems collectively.

[1] A digital copy of Maslach and Leiter’s book can be found on the CAF Virtual Library. [2] Marshall, M. & E. Marshall (2022), Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis: Theory and Practice. Ottawa, ON: Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy, p462.

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