This is a short note from my Roam Research second brain. Here’s a free guide where I introduce you to Roam & Building A Second Brain.
Metadata of Note
Type: 🌰 Seed [Nomenclature present here.]
Source: Cedric Chen on Commoncog
Tags: #burnout #stress #Balance Q3: How Can We Set & Achieve Balanced Goals #selfhelp #Balance Q2: Why Do We Live Lives of Imbalance
Date: July 23rd, 2022
This guide gave me a more nuanced perspective of how to think about “burnout.” While most people associate burnout with exhaustion and overworking, it’s interesting to know there are 3 factors at play (overwork, cynicism, and ineffectiveness). The Jobs-Demands-Resources framework reminded me of The Flow where the demands meet the resources provided. It was also helpful to see the “Mediation Model” although I didn’t fully understand the interplay there between the MBI scale and areas of work-life scale. Finally, although the suggestions given for preventing burnout are valid, they feel like a platitude, and I wonder what will help people really go from inaction to action.
What is Burnout
Burnout is a psychological state caused by prolonged stress from a job. There are three key characteristics of burnout:
1. Overwhelming exhaustion
2. Feelings of cynicism
3. And a sense of ineffectiveness (Page 3)
Traditionally, burnout was considered an occupational hazard in more people-oriented professions, like doctors, nurses, and teachers. They often have unique problems and a general expectation of dedication that most other vocations do not. For instance, doctors and nurses are expected to work long hours for their patients (and they have to be able to deal with death on a regular basis). Teachers are expected to go the extra mile and give their students the best education they can get. In fact, a 1981 story stated that almost every single use of the word ‘burnout’ was preceded by the word ‘teacher’. (Page 4)
But that has changed — burnout can occur in any vocation. A good example of this is the fact that COVID-19 has uprooted all facets of life. It has made burnout more commonplace, leading to the terms pandemic burnout, creator burnout, and Zoom burnout. And our change in vocabulary might have made things worse. Today, we need to ‘work’ in all areas of our lives^^. We need to work on our marriages. We should work on raising good kids. We might even need to work on our relationship with God. (A New Yorker piece on burnout observes that even Christian websites now ask “Are You at Risk for Christian Burnout?”). (Page 4)
Nurhaida Rahim had her dream job. She was an aid worker in the UN who worked in “hardship duty stations” like South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. She said that she craved the ‘high’ when she was out in the middle of nowhere, working 10-hour days, and drinking expired beer in her container housing. But she grew exhausted, unfulﬁlled, and snarky. This was despite the fact that she had her dream job!
So she got pretty good at telling herself every morning to ‘suck it up’. The main culprit? The work was relentless:
… work was a cycle of endless meetings that led to more meetings, proposals were written to bring in as much funding as possible, and colleagues were juggling multiple functions. There was a sense of exasperation at the slow progress of projects, and exhaustion was the only currency we all collectively recognize. To walk away is almost akin to saying I wasn’t cut out to do this line of work. And because I’ve always dreamed about working in international aid, I wasn’t about to give in to this burnout BS (emphasis added). (Page 8)
Rahim eventually suffered from bronchitis for two months after a steady diet of “smoking, fast food and convenience store wine”. Again, she felt that she couldn’t complain. As an aid worker, she saw people in the community who were “actually dealing with the real trauma of war and conﬂict”.
When placed against their plight, her troubles seem middling by comparison. It was only at a friend’s urging that she started on the road to recovery. She got professional help, switched jobs, and permanently changed the way she now takes care of her mental and physical health. She took a long time to heal. (Page 9)
What Is the Opposite of Burnout?
Now that you’ve seen what burnout looks like, it’s probably worth it to talk a little about the opposite of burnout. The opposite is interesting because it gives us something to aim towards. You don’t want to just avoid fast food, after all. You want to know what healthy food is, so you can eat more of it. Similarly, it’s useful to talk about something positive, instead of just burnout avoidance. Some burnout researchers believe that the opposite of burnout is something called ‘work engagement’, or simply ‘engagement’.
The exact deﬁnition varies among different burnout researchers. One way to think about engagement is to reverse the MBI. It has three dimensions, so Maslach’s conception of engagement also consists of those same three dimensions, but is inverted.
Thus, a highly engaged individual would have:
1. A state of high energy
2. Strong involvement -> how is “strong involvement” the opposite of cynicism?!
3. And a sense of efﬁcacy (Page 9)
The engagement model that is most often referenced in scientiﬁc literature is the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES). UWES’s deﬁnition of worker engagement is based on three factors: 1. Vigor 2. Dedication 3. And absorption.
UWES is a 17-question measurement that employees (and even students) may take online. Its effectiveness has been tested across different nationalities, races, and jobs with minimal differences. (Page 10)
To enhance work engagement we can:
1. Collaborate. Enhancing work engagement is something you do with someone, not with someone. Leaders should attempt to build a process that encourages work creativity and enthusiasm.
2. Establish an ongoing process. Work engagement is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Leaders should understand that it requires constant monitoring, adaptation, and action.
3. Know your target. Engagement has taken on many meanings, but what does it mean in your case?
4. Be creative. There are no hard-and-fast rules for building work engagement. Systematic research is still unfolding and every company is different, which will determine what works to some extent. Adapt to your situation.
5. Evaluate. Gather feedback on the impact of work engagement initiatives, evaluate them and improve on it.
6. Share. Provide progress reports on work engagement. (Page 11)
The Development of Work Burnout
It is not enough to have an assessment model of burnout. In order to act, we also need a developmental model — that is, a framework for burnout progression. The development of burnout is often described in sequential stages.
A very simple model of how burnout develops is to take the MBI and talk about which dimension develops ﬁrst. Maslach writes that exhaustion usually develops ﬁrst, perhaps in response to a high workload. Exhaustion then leads to cynicism, which takes on the form of detachment and negative reactions towards their work and to their colleagues. Then, ﬁnally, a person becomes ineffective at their job. (Page 12)
But for a more nuanced model, we present two models below.
The Job Demands-Resources Model
The JD-R model classiﬁes every occupation into two general categories: job demands and job resources.
Job demands are physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects of the job that require effort and come with a cost. These could be long work hours, high work pressure, and demanding interactions with bosses. But these factors are not necessarily negative! Instead, they can become negative if they don’t let up and prevent the employee from getting adequate rest.
Meanwhile, job resources are physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects of the job that help the employee achieve their work goals, reduce their job demands and costs, and stimulate personal growth. The more job resources one has, the more job demands can be safely put on you. (Page 13)
Figures 3 and 4, for instance, were taken from a 2006 study that tested employees from two home care organizations. The researchers found that home care workers were more resilient to exhaustion and cynicism when they were given job resources like high levels of feedback and autonomy, even in the face of high levels of physical engagement and patient harassment. (Page 15)
How Do We Use This?
As an employee, if you have constant high job demands that never seem to let up, you need to take advantage of the job resources that are available to you. More speciﬁcally, you need to be given autonomy in your job, you need to receive fair and effective feedback, and you should have social support and high-quality relationships with your supervisor. ^^
The primary caveat here is that you do not have full control of the job resources available to you since this is a function of your direct manager, company leadership, and the work environment. If you are an employer, understand that your employees can have high job demands and not be at risk of burnout if you provide them with high job resources. Build a better work culture that includes more feedback loops, allows employees to work autonomously, and dedicates time to cultivating a high-quality relationship with your employees.
The Conservation of Resources Model
The Conservation of Resources (COR) model offers another explanation of how work burnout develops. The COR model theorizes that individuals “strive to obtain and maintain that which they value”, which it calls ‘resources’. When work prevents people from obtaining or maintaining those resources, stress follows, which eventually leads to burnout. More speciﬁcally, stress accumulates when:
1. Resources are threatened.
2. Resources are lost. ﬁts. (Page 17)
3. And when people invest resources and don’t reap the expected bene
Here, resources could mean: 1. Objects — nice clothes, cars. 2. Conditions — employment, marriage, social status. 3. Personal characteristics — public speaking skills, networking ability. 4. Expendables — time, energy.
Occasionally, people invest resources like their time and energy in the pursuit of higher prized resources like power and money. If they invest such resources and don’t reap the expected beneﬁts, this is also considered a loss. When these personal resources are lost and the employee is unable to recoup those losses, the employee becomes at risk of burnout. (Page 18)
The difference is that the COR model acknowledges the primacy of loss. In other words, it recognizes that loss is more salient than gain. People who lose resources will need a higher amount of resources gained to offset the loss. In some ways, this is a more realistic theory. For example, if you have a lot invested in a project and management decides to kill the project, you are likely going to need a period of recovery in order to offset that loss. (Page 18)
Areas of Worklife Scale
This brings us to a newer, less-established, but perhaps more actionable model. The Areas of Worklife Scale (AWS) is a measurement created by Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach based on the burnout literature over the past two decades. It is a tool designed not just for academic researchers but for practitioners as well. When Leiter and Maslach reviewed studies of burnout and job stress, they identiﬁed six key domains that placed someone at risk of burnout. (Page 18)
Workload: This is the most obvious and commonly discussed area of work life. People who have too much to do in too little time, with too few resources are at risk of burnout, particularly on the exhaustion dimension. Again, not all high workloads lead to burnout. High workloads are manageable if people are given opportunities or resources to recover.
Control: This area represents the “employees perceived capacity to inﬂuence decisions that affect their work, to exercise professional autonomy, and to gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job.” Employees who have little control over their work are at risk of feeling ineffective at their job (one of the three dimensions of MBI).
Reward: The most obvious reward is monetary, but this area of work-life also includes social and intrinsic rewards. Lack of recognition (social reward) can devalue the work and the workers. It is closely associated with feelings of inefﬁcacy. Intrinsic rewards, like pride in doing something important and doing it well, should be cultivated too.
Community: Community represents the “overall quality of social interaction at work, including issues of conﬂict, mutual support, closeness, and the capacity to work as a team.” Today’s work community, with permanent or hybrid remote work schemes, can look very different from that of pre-COVID times. Regardless, a lack of social support or chronic conﬂict with coworkers remains a key factor in causing burnout. (Page 19)
Fairness: Fairness represents the “extent to which decisions at work are perceived as being fair and people are treated with respect.” In the workplace that can look like fair hiring and promotion processes. Even if the outcome is unfavorable to a particular employee — like a promotion that was passed up — as long as that employee believes that the process was fair, they will be okay. Mass layoffs and corporate restructuring, like those that happened during the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, can reveal to employees the inherent fairness or unfairness at their workplace.
Values: Values “encompasses the ideals and motivations that originally attracted [the em ployee]to the job.” It goes beyond money or advancement. It is the alignment of company values and actions with the employee’s personal set of values and actions. If misaligned, the worker is at risk of all three dimensions of burnout. (Page 20)
The Mediation Model
Leiter and Maslach have hypothesized the model below, known as the Mediation Model, that illustrates the relationships between the six areas of work life and the three dimensions of burnout.
The Mediation Model is an organizational change model — meaning that it is intended to serve as a guide for leaders who want to reorient their organizations against workplace burnout.
Instead of a simple additive model — where a mismatch in any one of the six Areas of Worklife domains contributes to a higher chance of burnout — Leiter, and Maslach propose a more complex interrelationship. They hypothesize that because ‘control’ is so central to the employee’s ability to inﬂuence the people and processes that determine their quality of work life, it is treated as the starting point in the Mediation Model. Control affects their ability to inﬂuence other areas like ‘workload’, ‘reward’, ‘community’, and ‘fairness’. Then the area of ‘values’ integrates and mediates between the six Areas of Worklife (except ‘workload’) and the MBI. (Page 21)
MBI, it’s hypothesized that exhaustion predicts cynicism, which in turn predicts inefﬁcacy. And all three dimensions of the MBI predict the ‘outcome of the evaluation of change’ — which the researchers take to mean what employees perceive to be a positive organizational change. (Page 22)
How to Prevent Burnout
If you only read about burnout via mainstream sources, it may seem like there are many options to prevent the three dimensions of burnout at an individual level. But this is misleading. Maslach points out that “there is very little research that has evaluated the efﬁcacy of any of these approaches in reducing the risk of burnout. Especially rare are studies modeled even loosely on randomized control trials.” (Page 22)
Nonetheless, here are some strategies to prevent the three dimensions of burnout.
– Moderate workload demands
– Take more breaks
– Avoid overtime work
– Get better sleep
– Work less — not always doable, but most people need recovery periods after periods of high output and stress.
– Get sunlight or bright light exposure during the day.
– Reduce exposure to artiﬁcial light at night.
– Exercise — physical activity may reduce burnout. – Nutrition — consider reducing the intake of highly processed foods and red meat while increasing the intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. (Page 23)
Prevent cynicism at workplace
Cynicism relates more to the employee’s alignment of personal values with the workplace.
– Improve civility at work — at an individual level this is not easily accomplished, but moving teams or taking a remote assignment may help. At an organizational level, this demands a cultural change. 22 (Page 23)
Strengthen support from coworkers and supervisors — implementing management best practices such as regular one-on-one meetings would help with this. (Page 24)
– Build a work culture where accomplishments are recognized and celebrated – Perform regular feedback and performance evaluations.
– Ensure that performance evaluations are done according to a fair scale. As per the Mediation Model from the Areas of Worklife Scale (AWS), there is one catch to implementing these strategies in preventing burnout. An employee ﬁrst needs to have control in their work life. It is the foundation that allows the employee to take action in order to prevent burnout. (Page 24)
Marissa Mayer’s story
Marissa Mayer was a former CEO at Yahoo and Vice President at Google (where she was employee number 20). Her days at Google were extremely long, clocking over 130 hours a week. She said “it was a lot of hard work,” and that she pulled “an all-nighter every week.”
Although she had to deal with this for her ﬁrst ﬁve years at Google, she was careful to avoid burnout by “ﬁnding her rhythm”. Mayer believed that we all have “one activity that matters so much that we can’t afford to miss it.” If we miss it, we start becoming resentful, and this contributes to burning out. That non-negotiable activity could be a movie night every Friday, dinner with the family every Sunday, or going to the gym three times a week. She argued that this was different for everyone, but once you found it, you should never skip it. (Page 25)
Cal Newport’s Story
Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times best-selling author. He also writes for a variety of outlets like the New Yorker, for his blog, and he started his own podcast in 2020. As such, he has to deal with a very high workload and still strike a balance between work and family life as a father of three kids.
In a podcast with Lex Fridman, Newport explained his method for preventing burnout. Newport’s trick is to operate in seasons across different time scales. What that means is that he cycles between high and low-intensity periods of work. During the low-intensity periods, he’ll get more time to rest. And Newport applies this across different time scales — quarterly, monthly, and weekly. If he goes hard at it for one semester, then he’ll take it easy the next semester. If he spends his mornings and afternoons doing deep work, he’ll put a hard stop on it by 5 PM. Sprint, rest, and repeat.
Again, notice Newport’s degree of control over his work life, and the implicit job resources available to him. To some degree, Newport chose this job due to the autonomy it afforded him — in So Good They Can’t Ignore You he wrote that he chose a position at Georgetown university due to the higher autonomy it would give him. (Page 27)*
How to Recover if You’re Burnt Out
Here’s the bad news: we know very little about recovering from burnout. What we do know are two things:
1. Individual interventions don’t work — and by individual interventions, we mean interventions while the person continues to be at the workplace that caused the burnout.
2. If you remove yourself from that working environment, you will recover. (Page 27)
One meta-analysis that examined 14 different burnout intervention studies in 2017 concludes, “burnout is not a stable phenomenon; it diminishes in time and the majority of sufferers continue working.” In other words, once you have removed yourself from the work environment where you got burnt out, it is only a matter of time before you fully recover. (Page 28)
So what have we shown you? We have shown you that burnout really consists of three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefﬁcacy.
We then introduced the concept of ‘engagement’, which is the opposite of burnout, and then walked you through a number of developmental models for burnout.
The biggest takeaway you should have from this guide is that burnout is really a ‘stress experience within a social environment’. You can’t prevent burnout if you don’t have power over the workplace you’re in — which means it is really important to pick the right workplaces that best ﬁts your goals.
Note that we are not saying ‘pick places that are low stress’, or ‘be unambitious and pick easy jobs’. What the burnout research shows us is that picking workplaces with high job demands is perfectly alright, provided it’s also backed up with a commensurate level of job resources — or at least a good understanding of recovery from ‘loss’.
This guide is arguably more important for leaders and managers. Since you have power over your org, it is up to you to change the organization for the better. The best model for such change is probably the ‘Areas of Worklife Scale’ — which tells you the order in which you should tackle each factor of workplace stress. (Page 28)