Two Diverging Poles on Addressing Burnout

In the New York Times Alina Tugend recently wrote an article on job burnout. Alina and I had an interesting conversation about the syndrome during her development of the article. She ended the article with a quote from me, “there’s the issue of justice — when a whole part of society that doesn’t seem to work very hard gets a lot of rewards and another gets squeezed harder and harder. That won’t be addressed in a mindfulness session.”

There are various perspectives on job burnout, its causes, and its prevalence. The biggest challenge in understanding burnout is finding methods for preventing or alleviating it.

My statement went to what I see as a pivotal point in about burnout intervention: changing the situation v. strengthening employees’ capacity to endure the situation. Helping people to endure is simpler. People can learn to work smarter. They can develop their capacity to relax as well as to get through their workday more effectively, expending less energy on emotional upsets or their frustrations with inappropriate or poorly organized work assignments. These are useful things to do, but leave important elements unaddressed.

Changing the situation requires a lot more. People only improve their levels of energy, involvement, and efficacy when really they experience changes in the important aspects of worklife. Changing superficial qualities of work does not make a lasting difference. Real improvements require meaningful changes in such things as workload, employees’ sense of agency, or workplace justice. These changes reflect a lasting realignment of power.

And realigning power is never easy work.

But it is a worthwhile when determined to build a better worklife.

What have you seen make a meaningful difference?

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