Flow・Interview

Burnout syndrome researcher: The technology has invaded our lives

By Paulina Palomo

Your bad boss is like a bad boyfriend, says Michael Leiter, an internationally renowned researcher of burnout and workplace psychology. He began working with burnout more than 40 years ago and saw how this syndrome is becoming truly omnipresent. Pollsters now say that burnout is experienced by up to 75% of workers. Burnout is about one’s exhaustion, cynicism and inefficiency at work. It can only be averted by making the job better, not just the worker, Dr. Leiter says in an interview with Sidekick.

The World Health Organization acknowledged burnout in 2019. How has the understanding of the syndrome developed in the last years?

First of all, I think it was great how they nailed the difference between simple exhaustion and burnout. Exhaustion is a part of burnout. But burnout is three things: exhaustion, cynicism, and discouragement.

The WHO also stated that burnout is not a disease, it’s an occupational condition. Some say that burnout is the same as depression. I dislike this. Depression is a mental illness. You give people medication so they stop feeling depressed. Burnout is a sign that the relationship between the job and the person is not working and you need to address that and not prescribe medication. You don’t give people medication because their job is not right. A lot of jobs are not right. A lot of jobs are a mess. A lot of managers are bad managers. A burnout is an existential crisis.

It happens when there is a mismatch between what people want to get with their lives and what’s really happening. You need to know yourself. What workload do you want? How much control do you want to have? Do you want to be responsible or do you rather someone else is responsible for the heavy decisions at work? What are you trying to get out of your work in terms of reputation, money, fame? How connected do you want to be with other people at work? What are your core values? What are you trying to do with your life? If you don’t have good answers, then the workplace is going to take you where it’s going to take you.

How has the nature of burnout changed with the digital era?

It keeps growing. I’ve already mentioned the effect of the global perspective.

Then you have the boundaries between work and not-work that have become very fuzzy. For people who want to keep work contained to 35 hours a week, it’s hard to do. You can always make that presentation just a bit better.

The disappearance of boundaries created by all the media has interfered with the people’s capacity to get distance from work and recover.

It has invaded people’s lives and their non-work time. Exhaustion is not about working hard. A lot of people like working hard. It comes from not being able to recover your energy. This is where the technology hit hard.

How did the pandemic affect people who work online?

If we talk about knowledge workers, they were fairly portable, to begin with. Essentially things are mediated through computers for them and they are not tied to a location very much. They were better positioned to go into a world where people are more separated from each other.

Knowledge workers had a smoother transition into the pandemic. As opposed to doctors or teachers who had a bigger transition, because they were separated by mediums that hadn’t been there before. Barriers were created by technical equipment and by masks. I’m talking about both physical and emotional distance.

What is your take on the effect of all the zoom meetings that flourished during the pandemic?

On one hand, you have Zoom fatigue. It’s a big issue. Part of it is a time rob.

Another issue is that Zoom is not really a fulfilling thing. It’s a different kind of give and take you get than when you are actually talking to other people.

You give a lot of energy without getting a lot of energy back. Screens don’t give you much back.

One more part about Zoom meetings is that before the pandemic, you were just sitting in a room with people, now you watch yourself the whole time in the corner of the screen. It brings up self-consciousness and that often gets in the way. You start thinking about how I am coming across more than about the meeting itself. This is great for extroverted and confident people because they are basically convinced that they’re wonderful and everybody’s going to benefit from hearing them. But those who are shy might rather not see themselves and they keep thinking: “Oh my hair’s not right”, “Should I have worn something different?”. It’s true that even in a normal meeting people get distracted to some degree, but when you are actually seeing yourself, the self-consciousness gets triggered a lot more directly.

Having your camera on became a workplace culture. Electronically mediated meetings had a whole new set of rules and expectations and social norms people had to adapt to. That was a learning curve. How do we do online meetings properly? How do I show that I’m actually participating? If I want to impress my boss, how do I go about doing that?

You say cynicism is a big part of burnout. How do you heal cynicism?

You change your job.

A bad boss is like a bad boyfriend. If you are not content at work, they say: go off and meditate. Wait, you’re just telling me to sit down and shut up and that will make my work better?

Healing cynicism is understanding that we need to make the job better, not just the worker. In an ideal situation, the manager has the authority to adapt jobs so they fit people better. He can ask the worker what he really wants to accomplish. You address cynicism by having a feeling that you are accomplishing things. A lot of managers, unfortunately, do not have this kind of authority. Instead, they waste the employees’ time with online training and silly nonsense.

Have you ever had a burnout yourself?

Not really. I’ve spent my whole life as an academic. If you’re good at being a professor (I was), then it’s a pretty great job. If you’re not good, it can be a very pressuring job. I always liked my research and talking about stuff.

Tell me about your book. When is it coming out? Why is it a cool book?

The book is coming out in mid-November, so it would have to be pre-ordered at this point. The name is “The Burnout Challenge”. The first author is Christina Maslach, I’m the second. It looks at burnout from the perspective of a relationship crisis between people and their workplaces rather than an individual failing or a mental illness.

Two pioneering researchers identify key causes of workplace burnout and reveal what managers can do to promote increased productivity and health.

What kind of workplace design can make workers happy?

Employers need to really ask their employees what they are looking for and design a workplace accordingly, so it’s not just buying people’s time. Ask your best employee — what are they looking for. Stop thinking only about what you can get out of him. It might be free snacks. It might be something else.

How do you start your morning? How do you make it as productive as possible?

I like things very consistent in the morning. I don’t want to make a lot of decisions. I always do the same exercise routine. I eat the same breakfast every morning: yogurt, granola and fruit, and coffee. I save the decisions for later. You only have so many decisions per day.

The important part for me is doing creative things in the morning. I do the good stuff, the demanding stuff (like writing an article) in the morning before I get tired. In the afternoon I do things that are easier.

Do you talk to anyone before you start being creative?

I avoid work meetings in the morning. But when I get to work I still say hi, I don’t just go and hide in my office right away.

When do you check your email?

A few hours into my day. But then I don’t look at it in the evening. I don’t check my email unless there is something I am expecting.

You mention not wanting to make too many decisions. Why is that?

I remember when Obama was president he had gray suits and he had blue suits. He wore one one day, and the other the next day. He didn’t want to make any decisions. He asked the chef at the white house to not give them a menu to choose from, instead just give him a meal. He didn’t want to decide whether to have chicken or vegetables or whatever. You decide that I have enough decisions to make. So decisions that are not really important — make them automatic and don’t think about them. Just make good ones at the beginning and stay with it. One day he wore a beige suit — very much out of character — he got headlines. Decisions are a big deal, so you shouldn’t waste energy on trivial decisions.

Why are decisions tiring? What do they do to the brain?

When you make a decision you are really making a statement about who you are and what you value. And if you want to make good decisions you need to reflect on who you are, and what is important to you. That is not a trivial thing to do. That takes time and energy. It takes attention. Attention is the most precious thing and people squander it on distractions.

Focusing on something and paying attention — be it writing an article or playing music — is the most demanding thing you can do with your mind.

How many hours is it fair to ask the brain to focus?

It depends on your pace. But it’s important to focus — defocus — focus. You don’t just spend hours on end focused. If you sit down and start counting from a 1000 backwards you will find out that you can’t do that for very long.

How do you understand your brain is done working for the day?

When you stop enjoying what you’re doing and think: this is getting tedious. Like when I work on music for a while it just keeps getting better. At one point you play it over and over again, but it’s not really getting better. Then I stop and go do something else. So much of problem solving happens when you are on automatic, it’s not really your conscious mind all the time.

In which countries is burnout treated most seriously?

Scandinavian countries, Germany, Holland. North America talks about it a lot, but doesn’t actually take it seriously. One thing I have noticed is that when you go to a work psychology conference in North America the main topic is recruitment: how to be sure you hire the right person. Whereas in Europe it’s much more about how to keep the workforce you have healthy and productive.

In North America the idea is if somebody isn’t working enough — get rid of them and hire someone else. In Northern Europe it’s really hard to get rid of people so you better figure out how to make the best of who you have. There is this company in Holland where at quitting time at 6 o’clock the table was lifted to the ceiling by cables. People couldn’t work anymore because the table was gone.

Let’s talk about tests. There is the Maslach burnout inventory. How precise is it?

Maslach burnout inventory is the golden standard. It’s not exactly precise down to the decimal points. Like if you score 3.42, it doesn’t mean you’re more likely to be towards the burnout side than somebody who scores 3.32. The numbers you get are more a general idea of what is going on.

Another thing that needs to be clarified: how does a person who quits their job score? Or a person who feels really unhappy at work even though they are still continuing — how do they score?

There are other scales, e.g. the Copenhagen burnout scale. Others are not used near as much as the Maslach scale. The Maslach scale is the only one that really does exhaustion, cynicism and efficacy, which is how WHO defines burnout. The others usually just measure exhaustion.

What are the best habits for the brain’s working capacity?

Learning is the best exercise for the brain. Learning music, listening to podcasts. The more strikingly different ideas you take in, the more your brain thinks. That’s what I like about crossword puzzles — they make you think about words in a different kind of way. Like I was doing a crossword the other day and one crossword puzzle clue was “Team Building”. And the 5-letter answer was “Arena”. Because that’s the building where the team plays. And I was thinking about all sorts of exercises. So that was refreshing for the brain.

Writing is a great way to develop your thinking as well. You understand an idea a whole lot better if you write it down. There are people who do the morning pages. They just write everything down from their mind in the morning. That’s really good for you, I just don’t have enough patience, because I need to do so much more writing at work. They also say you should write things down with a pen and not type it, but if I write it down with a pen I can’t read my handwriting. I don’t write anything longer than I can put on a post-it note with a pen. But morning pages are definitely good for your creativity. They help you get out of the habitual ways of thinking about things.

What are the worst habits for your brain?

Regrets, bitterness, blaming other people, refusing to take accountability. The idea is that it is only the other people that cause problems in my life. Really not acknowledging the extent to which you are part of the mix, whatever mix is going on. Because you are denying the fact that you are an active player in your life.

Embracing a victim role is very bad for your thinking and for your creativity.

What are the tips and tricks you advise to do throughout the day in order to prevent burnout?

Making meetings shorter. I like meetings where everybody is standing up, that will end sooner than a sitting meeting. When you are sitting you go into things that don’t really need to be gotten into, just because of inertia.