… about canaries in coal mines

It’s not me, it’s you! aka, what leads to burnout?

I was doing some research on the topic of burnout and I have come across the most interesting timeline in the history of psychology (probably not, but still…). We all know Zimbardo’s Stanford experiment. Turns out, the findings during the six days of the experiment inspired his (later to be) wife to study the organisational effects of unavoidable stress. Her name is Christina Maslach and she coined the term “burnout” in 1981. In a very timely manner, almost forty years later, the WHO listed it as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019. I can almost hear managers cheering in joy to this finding. Well bad news… It’s not what you think. 

When thinking of the “Lucifer effect”, the term is highly “humanised” (in its own biblical way, of course) and still can be interpreted as a person related phenomenon. What Christina did in turn, in her own wonderful metaphors, was to reflect on the effect of the environment. She paints the picture of a beautiful canary singing and flying into a coal mine. Sooner than later the canary comes out dirty, diseased, having lost her voice. Do we then go ask her, how she got sick? Or it’s obvious enough, that the coal mine environment was bad for her? 

To this day, there is a lot of confusion around the term of burnout, most using it as a synonym for exhaustion. And so, we come up with great ideas of offering yoga classes, practices of mindful meditation and my favourite, resilience trainings. All focused on the individual measures (which are highly applaudable), neglecting the organisational factors.  

In a Gallup study conducted a few years back, inspired by the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the following points were identified as the main causes of employee burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

So while we might invest a lot in managing the effect, the source is rarely addressed. It’s like cleaning an oil-spill in the ocean. You can spend endless effort cleaning, or you can just go to the source and close the tap. Most times easier said than done. 

While the above points seem heavy in the words formulated, often enough the situation is not that severe. Most time it’s just nuisances that are not clearly addressed, which accumulated in time and numbers lead to a lack of trust in the overall organisation. Access rights, restrictions, overnight process implementations without any apparent meaning behind. And here, it’s time to pull the curtains up and look behind the scenes. Showing the situation as is and having clear and honest conversation between leaders and employees is the first step to take. Once trust is installed the rest will follow.

And last but not least. Stop advertising for canaries when the work needs to be done in the coal mines. The classification of burnout as a health hazard does not mean, that the individual is in any need of fixing, or is at fault of being burned out. The source of the problem is further upstream. 

© 2021 designed with Canva.
Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 72 other subscribers.