Instead of pressuring already-stressed individuals to fix themselves, true wellness requires organization-level interventions.
By Leah Weiss Oct. 20, 2020
The term “burnout” first came into use in the early 1970s in the context of air traffic control, after an increase in human error-precipitated collisions was linked to frustrations with increased traffic, poor human-machine interfaces, and the general monotony of the work. Described by the WHO as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” burnout is characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.” But just as the early research on burnout showed it to be a fundamentally systemic problem—since the air traffic controllers being studied were extremely well-trained in coping with stress (many were military veterans)—more recent researchers also describe the causes of burnout as collective, and impossible for an individual to fix without a systems perspective.
Factors like overwork or insufficient resources play a role in burnout, but according to Christina Maslach, of University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Leiter, at Saint Mary’s University, it’s at least as important to focus on fairness, transparency, and purpose in the workplace. Comparing workers to cucumbers in vinegar, Maslach said: “We should be trying to identify and analyze the critical components of ‘bad’ situations in which many good people function. Imagine investigating the personality of cucumbers to discover why they had turned into sour pickles without analyzing the vinegar barrels in which they had been submerged.”
Burnout is undeniably costly. While individuals with full-blown cases can lose months and years of wages and carry the burden of expensive mental health interventions, more than half of all professionals fall somewhere on the burnout continuum. Burnout increases risk of coronary disease and type II diabetes, is associated with lower heart rate variability—generally understood to be indicative of reduced worse health and aging—and there have been studies of telomeres (protective caps at the end of chromosomes) that indicate telomere shortening usually associated with biological aging. Burnout has neurological implications, associated with thinning in the prefrontal cortex, larger amygdala, and smaller caudate, giving people less capacity for decision-making and implicating memory, attention, and emotion regulation. And beyond the physical implications of burnout, there are significant economic and social costs: Beyond the cost of treating burnout, research indicates severe consequences for burnout on relationships, especially our closest relationships. A partner of someone who burns out is at higher risk for burnout themselves, especially given compassion fatigue. Burnout costs organizations $120-190 billion a year, a rate comparable to cancer, at $172.8 billion in losses a year.
How can we stop blaming cucumbers for becoming pickles? How to mitigate the acidity in the environment? Individuals can’t yoga or meditate their way out of burnout. Indeed, heightening pressure on already-stressed individuals to “fix themselves” only perpetuates the cycles of stress. Organization-level interventions are needed.