Reasons for job burnout and what motivates people in their job

Burnout comes in many colours and flavours.

Often, burnout is conceived as a weakness of the person experiencing it: "they can't work under stress", "they lack organizational skills", "they are currently going through grief or a break up, that's why they can't keep up" — you've heard it all before, right?

But what if job burnout would actually be an indicator for a toxic work environment? Or for a toxic work setup?

I had read quite a bit of literature trying to explain burnout before stumbling upon the work of Christina Maslach. She has researched burnout for thirty years and is most well known for her research on occupational burnout. While she observed burnout in the 90ies mostly in caregiver professions, we can see an increase of burnout in many other fields in recent years, such as in the tech industry. Maslach outlines in one of her talks what this might be due to.

More interesting to me is the question why job burnout occurs at all? High workload is only one out of six factors that increase the risk for burnout, according to Christina Maslach and her team.

Factors increasing job burnout

  1. Workload. This could be demand overload, lots of different tasks, lots of context switching, unclear expectations, having several part time jobs, lack of resources, lack of work force, etc.
  2. Lack of control. Absence of agency. Absence of the possibility to make decisions. Impossibility to act on one's own account.
  3. Insufficient reward. Here, we are not solely talking about financial reward, but also about gratitude, recognition, visibility, and celebration of accomplishments.
  4. Lack of community. Remote work, asynchronous communication, poor communication skills, isolation in working on tasks, few/no in-person meetings, lack of organizational caring.
  5. Absence of fairness. Invisible hierarchies, lack of (fair) decision making processes, back channel decision making, financial or other rewards unfairly distributed.
  6. Value conflicts. This could be over-emphasizing on return on investment, making unethical requests, not respecting colleagues' boundaries, the lack of organizational vision, poor leadership.

Interestingly, it is possible to improve one area of risk, and see improvements in all the other areas.

What motivates people?

So, what is it that motivates people, what makes them like their work?
Here, Maslach comes up with another interesting list:

  • Autonomy. This could mean for example to trust colleagues to work on tasks autonomously. To let colleagues make their own decisions on how to implement a feature as long as it corresponds to the code writing guidelines. The responsibility for the task should be transferred along with the task. People need to be allowed to make mistakes (and fix them). Autonomy also means to say goodbye to the expectation that colleagues do everything exactly like we would do it. Instead, we can learn to trust in collective intelligence for coming up with different solutions.
  • Feeling of belonging. This one could mean to try to use synchronous communication whenever possible. To privilege in-person meetings. To celebrate achievements. To make collective decisions whenever the outcome affects the collective (or part of it). To have lunch together. To have lunch together and not talk about work.
  • Competence. Having a working feedback process. Valueing each others' competences. Having the possibility to evolve in the workplace. Having the possibility to get training, to try new setups, new methods, or new tools. Having the possibility to increase one's competences, possibly with the financial backing of the workplace.
  • Positive emotions. Encouraging people to take breaks. Make sure work plannings also include downtime. Encouraging people to take at least 5 weeks of vacation per year. Allowing people to have (paid) time off. Practicing gratitude. Acknowledging and celebrating achievements. Giving appreciation.
  • Psychological safety. Learn to communicate with kindness. Practice active listening. Have meetings facilitated. Condemn harassment, personal insults, sexism, racism, fascism. Condemn silencing of people. Have a possibility to report on code of ethics/conduct abuses. Making sure that people who experience problems or need to share something are not isolated.
  • Fairness. How about exploring inclusive leadership models? Making invisible hierarchies visible (See the concept of rank). Being aware of rank. Have clear and transparent decision making processes. Rewarding people equally. Making sure there is no invisible unpaid work done by always the same people.
  • Meaning. Are the issues that we work on meaningful per se? Do they contribute anything to the world, or to the common good? Making sure that tasks or roles of other colleagues are not belittled. Meaning can also be given by putting tasks into perspective, for example by making developers attend conferences where they can meet users and get feedback on their work. Making sure we don't forget why we wanted to do a job in first place. Getting familiar with the concept of bullshit jobs.

In this list, the words written in bold are what we could call "Needs". The descriptions behind them are what we could call "Strategies". There are always many different strategies to fulfill a need, I've only outlined some of them. I'm sure you can come up with others, please don't hesitate to share them with me.