Critical Issues for Workplace Fatigue and Burnout


By: Christina Maslach

Whenever the topic of job burnout gets raised, the first question asked is usually, “What can we do about it?” Indeed, the drive to discover solutions is so prevalent that the e-journal that I coedit, Burnout Research, has just sent out a call for a special issue on “Challenges of Doing Burnout Interventions.”

Although many different ideas have been proposed about how to deal with burnout, very few of them have ever been implemented or evaluated—or even publicized systematically. So there may well be a rich source of untapped experience about the obstacles and challenges that exist concerning doing burnout interventions, and we are hoping to find authors who will share their insights and lessons learned from actual attempts to solve the burnout problem.

I have also learned some lessons about solutions for burnout. I have done this from the perspective of a researcher who has interviewed and observed people in various occupations and work settings and who has tried to distill the key themes that have emerged from many kinds of empirical data. These lessons that are the focus of my article for a special issue on workplace fatigue in the Consulting Psychology Journal. Although burnout is a broader concept than chronic fatigue, I think there are several key issues that are relevant for both.

The first involves the psychology-centric focus of work on burnout. This psychological approach has made many positive contributions to our understanding of the burnout phenomenon, but it also has had some negative effects in terms of its bias toward focusing just on the individual and clinical deficits. A second is the bias toward fixing people, rather than fixing the job situation. The literature on health, stress, and coping has generated many ideas about how to help the individual person become more resilient and efficient. But there is a relative dearth of ideas on how to modify or improve the job environment in which individuals work.

However, newer models that take in to account both the person and the job, as well as the fit or balance between them, may be a better path toward effective solutions. More specifically, the Areas of Worklife (AW) model proposes that major misfits between the person and the job can take place within six interrelated areas: workload demands, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. The greater these misfits or imbalances, the greater is the risk of burnout; conversely, the greater the fit between person and job in these six areas, the greater is the likelihood of engagement.

Recent research suggests that the six areas in the AW model can be used as a kind of diagnostic tool to identify important job-person mismatches, thus providing a clearer picture of what the goals of an effective intervention might be. By “customizing” an intervention to take into consideration more probable causes, rather than relying on more standard, one-size-fits-all approaches, practitioners would have a better chance of preventing burnout and building engagement throughout the workplace. Similarly, another approach interprets job-person “fit” in terms of the satisfaction of core psychological needs:  autonomy, belongingness, competence, psychosocial safety, positive emotions, fairness, and meaning. Both models can provide a new framework for defining a healthy workplace in which employees can thrive and succeed, and this could have important implications for how to redesign the workplace to make burnout less of an occupational hazard.

Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research publishes evidence-based articles that advance the body of professional knowledge and expertise for providing psychologically based services to improve organizations and the people who work in them. It is a unique peer-reviewed journal; CPJ articles meet scientific standards for rigor and support but are also readable, practical, and actionable.

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