Christina Maslach is professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael P. Leiter is professor emeritus of psychology at Acadia University. Maslach and Leiter co-authored The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs.
If you’re like roughly 40% of office workers, you might describe yourself as feeling burned out by your job. But is it burnout, run-of-the-mill work stress, or something else entirely?
Although just about everyone can have a bad or tiring day at work occasionally, people who are experiencing burnout have them all or most of the time. Burnout has three different dimensions: emotional and physical exhaustion, negative attitudes and cynicism about one’s job, and beliefs that one’s professional efforts are ineffective because they don’t matter or aren’t enough.
In contrast, people who are highly engaged at work feel energetic, involved, and effective at their jobs, at least most of the time. In other words, things are going well in their professional lives, and they are largely satisfied overall.
But the world of work is not neatly divided into a binary of “all negative” or “all positive.” Our research has found that there are three additional “in-between” types of major work experiences in which people have two positive dimensions and only one negative (e.g., exhaustion only). We call these experiences “overextended,” “disengaged,” and “ineffective.” Although some people may exhibit signs of two negative dimensions (e.g., both exhaustion and cynicism), that scenario does not show up often in our studies, perhaps because those individuals progress quickly to burnout, quit their jobs, or find a way to improve things. At this point, we don’t know enough to say for sure. In general, we have found that about 15% of workers are truly burned out and about a third are engaged, while the rest have one of the three mixed experiences.
Where do you fit in? Answer these three questions to find out which of the five major work experiences is closest to your own. As you do, think about how you typically feel at work on an average day.
- Do you usually arrive at work feeling energetic, with the capacity to maintain your energy throughout the workday? [Yes/No]
- Do you readily become involved with the challenges you encounter at work? [Yes/No]
- Are you generally confident that you are doing important work and doing it effectively? [Yes/No]
If you answered “no” to the first question, but “yes” to the other two, then you fit into the overextended profile.
Your answers indicate you feel overextended at work. In this situation, people are experiencing exhaustion, but they still feel fully involved in their jobs and are confident that they are working effectively. Although they feel positively about both the workplace and their own contributions, they are facing an energy crisis: long hours, too much to do, and no time to recover. Being tired all the time leads some people to label this experience as “burnout”—but as long as they are still feeling good about their job and about themselves overall, they are not experiencing all the dimensions of burnout.
What to do about it: Either reducing demands on your time or adding resources—like support staff, more funding, or better equipment—would make your job more manageable. But these strategies run directly opposite to corporate pushes “to do more with less,” so they often encounter opposition.
If your workplace won’t grant the resources you need, try to focus on things within your control. Look for better ways to recover from the demands of your day. Getting more sleep; taking rejuvenating breaks from work, perhaps by sitting down for a screen-free meal or taking a walk; and doing energizing activities, like exercising and spending time with friends and family, can make a difference. Recovery, both at work and away from work, sustains people’s wellbeing.
If you answered “no” to the second question, but “yes” to the other two, then you fit into the disengaged profile.
Your answers indicate you feel disengaged at work. In this situation, people are experiencing cynicism and have lost interest in their work, but still feel energetic and confident in their abilities. They have lost whatever spark or motivation they started with. They may feel under-compensated or under-appreciated, frustrated by a lack of control, or unenthused by the social scene in the workplace. Their workload may be manageable, and they can do a good job, but the work itself no longer excites them.
What to do about it: If you’re disengaged from your work, improving your workplace relationships can help. Positive relationships with colleagues can help work feel more fulfilling and make you more excited about showing up in the morning. This connection should be based on respect and mutual regard for one another’s contributions—so consider asking a co-worker you’ve always admired out for lunch or coffee.
Otherwise, it can be valuable to reflect on qualities of your work that you continue to enjoy or deeply care about. With a clear idea of your core values, you can work with colleagues and managers to emphasize those values in your work.
If you answered “no” to the third question, but “yes” to the other two, then you fit into the ineffective profile.
Your answers indicate you feel ineffective at work. In this situation, people are feeling discouraged and even hopeless about how well they are doing their work or how much it matters, even though they may like their job and feel energetic about stepping up to the plate. They may enjoy certain aspects of the job, such as their relationships with co-workers and the organization’s overall goals. But they are not sure about whether their job performance is hitting the mark and being appreciated, so they are feeling stuck.
What to do about it: The core strategy for addressing inefficacy is to have more rewarding experiences at work. Appreciation or recognition from others can help to move you from an okay job experience to one that is enjoyable and worthwhile. You could ask for new tasks that seem interesting, challenging, or meaningful to you. Or, work on developing relationships with colleagues who can provide advice and feedback to help you grow in your current role and hone skills you would like to have.
If you answered “no” to all three questions, then you fit into the burnout profile.
Your answers indicate you feel burned out at work. Burned-out people feel exhausted, cynical about the workplace, and ineffective in their jobs. Nothing is going right. Individuals who experience job burnout often feel drained and overwhelmed, and may find it difficult to concentrate on their work. They may also feel a sense of detachment or cynicism towards their job or colleagues, and may struggle to find meaning or purpose in their work. They may also experience headaches, insomnia, and stomach problems, as well as emotional symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and irritability.
What to do about it: Easing burnout requires a concerted effort, with the goal being to find fulfillment in at least one of the six key areas of worklife: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.
Ideally, employers should be intimately involved in helping their employees find this fulfillment and ease burnout. Employers can make meaningful changes to help alleviate the stressors that contribute to burnout, perhaps by lessening workloads, supplying more support resources, or giving employees more control over their work and time, just to name a few examples.
If you aren’t getting the support you need from management, focus on what can be done to fulfill core psychological needs: belonging (feeling like part of something larger), competence (successfully achieving tasks), and autonomy (having control over how you spend your time). Strengthening workplace relationships, taking on projects that feel exciting and meaningful, and working with your manager to find ways to bring your work into alignment with your values can all be good places to start.
It’s also important to find ways to recover from the stresses of work, such as getting more sleep; taking rejuvenating breaks, perhaps by sitting down for a screen-free meal or taking a walk; and doing energizing activities, like exercising and spending time with friends and family. Recovery alone isn’t enough to eliminate burnout—but it can help, especially when paired with support and constructive changes from your employer.
If you answered “yes” to all three questions, then you fit into the engaged profile.
Your answers indicate you feel engaged at work. An engaged situation reflects a good match between your aspirations and your job—but since both can change at any time, don’t get complacent.
For example, with greater job experience, you may want greater autonomy. With more family responsibilities, you may want to revise your work-life balance. The workplace may push employees to do more with less, upsetting your demand-resource balance. Ideally, there is enough flexibility in your work situation for these changes to be manageable. Nevertheless, it is important to know your priorities and to maintain ways of influencing your work situation. And it’s very important to have a workplace that responds to the needs and hopes of its people. A challenge at this point is identifying values that you share with your manager. You can make a strong case that making your work situation more manageable is not only a plus for workplace health but for your productivity as well.
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