Dr. Michael Leiter on combatting burnout and sparking engagement at work

Photo of Paul Sephton
April 14, 2021
Reading time
17 minutes

Why has the coronavirus pandemic led to such astronomical rises in worker burnout, exhaustion and fatigue? And what can we do about it? In this week’s episode of the Jabra Soundbar podcast, we hear from Dr. Michael Leiter on the relationship problem at the core of burnout, the factors that lead to this widespread occupational hazard, and how managers and organizations can successfully handle this chronic stress during the pandemic.

Dr. Leiter is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Saint Mary’s University whose work focuses on improving the quality of work life. Author of Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work, he is internationally renowned for his work on burnout and engagement at work, spanning a career of more than 40 years in research and academia.

Paul Sephton: We focus a lot on pain points at Jabra, specifically around ways of working and knowledge working. And there is this major focus on how we can be our most productive selves and how can we communicate and collaborate clearly, which ties us to something you’ve spent a lot of time researching and focusing on in your studies: the subject of burnout. So, can you define how we view burnout today?

Michael Leiter: Well, how we view burnout today is a syndrome of really three qualities, one of which is feeling exhausted – particularly feeling exhausted before your workday even begins. If you feel exhausted at the end of the workday, it just might’ve meant you worked hard. But if you feel exhausted before the workday begins, that means that things are just running out of balance, particularly when that becomes a regular part of your life. If you feel that way once or twice a year, it probably just means you’ve got an interesting social life. But if you feel that way every day, then things are out of kilter. So that exhaustion is piece one of it.

The second is really getting cynical and disengaged and like just you don’t care anymore. Part of that is being exhausted, because it’s hard to get excited about anything if you’re exhausted. But things like cynicism, withdrawal, just not being there emotionally, you just can’t care or get excited about things again. So that’s the second piece – and again, if that’s happening frequently, it is a problem. The third is a sort of a lack of efficacy. You feel like you just can’t get the work done the way you used to. You lose confidence and feel like you can’t make things happen. It’s those three things together that really define burnout.

Every few years, the World Health Organization looks at classifications of diseases that it updates. In the update that’s in the works at the moment, they had the opportunity to define burnout as a disease. There was a lot of pressure for that to happen because people would like to be eligible for disability payments when they’re out of work due of burnout. But they stopped short of saying it was a disease, defining it rather as an occupational hazard, because in and of itself it doesn’t meet the standards of a disease. It’s something more general, more a quality of the work experience itself, and that puts the onus onto the work experience rather than a health problem with the person. Essentially, it isn’t that the people who experience burnout are somehow flawed or have some illness, some problem within themselves: they’re simply having a problem with their work. It’s a work issue and it needs to be resolved within that space.

Paul Sephton: So, you’ve mentioned a few things and one of them which came to mind is this sense of chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed, and then you spoke about how it’s not an individual issue. At its core, burnout has often been called more of a relationship problem. So, how do we know if it’s something which rests more on the person or on the situation or a mismatch between the individual and the role? Or how would you describe the workings of the core of this relationship?

Michael Leiter: The idea that people have is that workers are really different from each other and workplaces are really different from each other. So, you’ve got a big range of possible matches, and thus the question becomes: are a person and their job really aligned with each other? Furthermore, as people change over time and jobs change over time, it is worth asking if they are still aligned with each other after a period of time. So, they’re both sort of moving targets in a way, which is particularly an issue when doing a survey of a large organization. Take hospitals. I like hospitals because they’re big and complicated and have really interesting people working there. And so, when you go in there, you’ll find that some people working in the same units are feeling really burned out and overextended. It’s not usually just one person, but multiple. However, there are also other people in the same setting who are doing just fine and reporting, “It’s fine. This is a great place to work.” So, you’re thinking, “Okay, well, how does that happen?”

It isn’t so much that there’s something within them that is making burnout happen. It’s more how they’re interacting with this setting that’s different from how other people who are thriving are interacting with their slice of the setting.

You find some people who are high on the engagement scale, who are really doing the work in a different kind of way. They’ve got a different kind of demographic. They’ve got a bit more power experience, whether it’s formal power or whether it’s just because they’re a more engaging kind of personality, so they can just sort of get things done much more readily. Meanwhile, the folks on the other end, they’ve got really problematic relationships with other people in the unit. Their work is often a different kind of work, perhaps not quite as engaging on the surface. So something different is happening with them, they’ve got a different history with people. And it isn’t so much that there’s something within them that is making burnout happen. It’s more how they’re interacting with this setting that’s different from how other people who are thriving are interacting with their slice of the setting, which in a way, is a somewhat different setting. Everybody’s got a unique sort of world that they interact with, and that’s part of what’s going on too.

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Paul Sephton: And you’ve spoken about how right now, the place where burnout happens is between the workplace and the people. But if the last 12 months have shown us anything, it’s that work lines are really blurring and I think with that, our presence or our sense of presence is shifting. I’m keen to get your take on how this presence might have shifted with the pandemic or been impacted by the pandemic?

Michael Leiter: Well, I think it’s really different depending on where you are; this economy has reacted in so many different ways to the pandemic. Some places are having more business than they ever imagined and other places have nothing going on and others are feeling themselves put at risk with contact with the public or with patients. Others are completely isolated and not having any problem with that at all. It’s so varied, and there isn’t one framework that fits across the board. I think generally, the world of people who are working in business, they’re largely remotely working at home as opposed to going into the office within that world, which is a fairly big slice and a fairly active slice. I think one thing is that there is a lot of change and change is one of those things that adds on top of the workload. There is a feeling that change is something to be managed, something that eats up part of your energy and just in and of itself is something that has to be accommodated. And meanwhile, you have still got to get all your work done. So, that sort of adds another level.

Some were more prepared than others. As a university professor, I knew something about working at home: that’s where I actually got writing done. If you’re at the office, somebody is always talking to you and you don’t manage to complete any work. So, I was set up for that with a good chair and office space. For many people, however, that wasn’t how things were set up at home at all. That rapid transition became another sort of factor. Add homeschooling or childminding to the mix, that just adds yet another.

Let’s accommodate a much wider range of working styles going forward because essentially, the remote working worked.

All these levels of changing the context in which the people are actually doing the work, they’re all adding to the level of burnout. They also can challenge one’s sense of competence, that sense of accomplishment or efficacy in their work, because they’re not used to working this way. On the other hand, some found that it was great. Particularly introverts loved it, sort of the revenge of the introverts. The ones who were like, “I get to stay home. I don’t have to go talk with anybody. I can get all kinds of things done.” But the extroverts, like people who develop ideas by talking to people either at work or at the bar or at the games, many of them struggled. They thought, “how am I going to develop an idea if I don’t have anybody to bounce it off?”

So, what I’ve found, because we’ve doing this for nearly a year one way or the other, is that people are smart and they figure out after a while how to make this thing work for them. So, I think at this point, there’s a great knowledge of that. People know, here’s how I do some things better remotely than I would at the office, but here’s what I really miss out of that office context. And I think there’s a lot of insight people have and as things hopefully come back together in the coming year, that employers and managers will recognize that and really respect it and say, “Let’s accommodate a much wider range of working styles going forward because essentially, the remote working worked.”

Paul Sephton: And with that in mind, when we do see someone who is on the brink of burnout or has burnt out, we typically send them home or we give them time off and it doesn’t seem to solve the core problem or the source because that’s the workplace. At the same time, it implies that you need to fix a person or that there’s some level of blame in the individual who’s at fault, while the workplace itself is what is not changing. So, what’s your take on how we can more effectively solve burnout?

Michael Leiter: Well, I guess it goes to burnout being a relationship problem. If you’re having a relationship problem with somebody close to you in your life and you say, “I want you to go away and fix yourself and come back and then I’ll deal with you at that point,” that relationship is in trouble – that isn’t how you fix relationship problems. But that’s in a way is what employers are doing. “Oh, take some time off, fix yourself, and then come back.” And it’s tough, I realize this is a tough thing, but basically managers need to actually talk with people, pay attention to what’s going on and find ways to accommodate the work style that that person is going to be able to sustain over time.

I think there’s a lot of tweaking of what is really the expectation. If part of the problem is, “I’m just not getting along with people here, people are really giving me a hard time when I come to work, that’s what’s really stressed me out,” then you kind of think, “Okay, what are we doing? What’s going on in that workplace? And why are they dragging this particular person down? I’m not paying my employees to give this guy a hard time.” So how do we change that dynamic within the work group? Those are the kinds of things that make a difference in an enduring kind of way. If you want to keep the people, if you want to go forward, then you’ve got to figure out, well, what is going off the rails here?

And you can get that from talking with people. We do surveys that look at these areas of work life and the burnout scale. There’s this thing on social encounters, like, “how often are you giving and receiving appreciation to people in your work group? How often are you being rude to people and how often are people being rude to you?” And once you start mapping out what the social dynamics are, you can say “is that the issue with this workplace?” And if so, how do we push them to the positive end? You can get a whole lot from these surveys, depending on the size of your workplace, on watching people and talking to people, but also being open to the idea that, “Okay, the way we set it up doesn’t work for everybody, so how can I tweak things so that this person, that person, the other, can find a more productive and thriving home here?”

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Paul Sephton: And you speak about productivity, which has long been for the past few decades a buzzword and a major driver for organizations to enhance their work. Often people seem to be given more work demands with maybe diminished resource or tools, and don’t necessarily have the smarter ways of working. And so that productivity boost that’s expected is actually an increased demand from an individual and their boost in resource rather than the employer. What is the relationship between productivity and burnout?

They don’t have any smart ideas at all, they just mean for employees to work harder. That isn’t really brilliant leadership. That is lazy leadership.

Michael Leiter: Right. A lot of organizations, as you were saying, try to say, “We’re going to do more with less,” or, “We’re going to do more with the same.” But in reality, they don’t have any smart ideas at all, they just mean for employees to work harder. That isn’t really brilliant leadership. That is lazy leadership. But that is a lot of what it translates into. I think that the relationship is that, turning it around the other way, people who are really engaged with their work, that have the energy, that have that real involvement and passion for what they’re doing, they have that confidence in themselves that they are the ones that are going to produce more for you. That people who are chronically exhausted, people who are really getting cynical and grumpy about what’s going on, are not going to be producing what is needed.

I mean, so much of this economy is about generating smart ideas, good design, and really high-level products that can make international organizations more competitive and allow them to enter the game in any kind of serious way. That is the currency, that’s how you make productivity happen. And to do that, you have to attract and retain the really top talent, who, of course, have options because they are top talent.

And so, you’ve got to give them an environment where every day they come in they say, “The longer I work here, the smarter I get, the more I’m really going to make things happen.” And the challenge for managers is to create that workplace environment. And again, I think the people who are on the burnout end of that are your canary in the coal mine. They’re telling you, “Something’s wrong here, I’m completely frazzled.” But if some of your people are really frazzled, it could well be that the people who are doing well, they could be doing even better if they weren’t carrying around whatever dead weight is dragging down the folks who are having a really hard time. So that is where you go, “Okay. If I can make it better for these folks, it’s probably going to be better for everybody.”

The top leader has a really big impact on these things. So that is clearly a case, because everybody’s looking upward to figure out, “what really are the values of this organization?”

Paul Sephton: And do you think right now that there is some type of domino effect where perhaps the CEO is actually the source of the burnout, but there is this knockdown effect where if a manager isn’t able to lead effectively or inspire their team because they’re burnt out, that that is then going to affect not one person, but a team of 10 or 20 or hundreds?

Michael Leiter: The top leader has a really big impact on these things. So that is clearly a case, because everybody’s looking upward to figure out, “what really are the values of this organization?” If it’s a hospital and they say, “We’re all about patient care,” and you go, “No, actually we’re about economics and financial concerns.” Then they’ll look at what management is actually doing. How is the money being spent? How are managers spending their time? They look to that kind of thing.

And so, the values of the executive level or the leadership level, they eventually get translated into the day-to-day encounters that people have. And particularly on the subject of burnout, if it’s that kind of pressured environment where people are feeling overwhelmed or chronically exhausted, they’re not going to talk to anybody at that organization about it because they’re scared to death to show any weakness because that’s very clearly what leadership is indicating here: that we just go flat out all the time, and we have no tolerance for weakness. Then people are going to keep very quiet about it, and they’re going to either fizzle out or they’re going to leave or just be grumpy and just stay on and not really be the kind of employee that one is hoping for.

That’s very much where we’re going: that the values that are being lived by top management and not the ones that are blathered about are going to shape the world, and their realization could be very much pushing people towards burnout.

Paul Sephton: So as an organization or a C-suite and management group who’s concerned about all of the changes that we’ve seen in the last little while, what are the organizational level changes, which can be put in place – or should be put in place – to effectively prevent this type of chronic exhaustion in the workplace, regardless of who’s managing or who’s working?

It is an information economy. Information is valuable. You’ve got to give people something for whatever information they give you. So, it has to be very, very well run. It can’t just be a rote exercise.

Michael Leiter: Well, I think part of it is to have the information flow, that you really do know what’s going on with people whether it’s through surveys or observing or another method. And if you do surveys, you have to share the information and you have to act on it. I think that’s a big problem that’s happening in a lot of settings: as they do the surveys, they don’t act on anything, they don’t share the information very well, and people don’t know what the hell it was all about. “That was just some survey. I’ve done those things before and nothing happens.” It is an information economy. Information is valuable. You’ve got to give people something for whatever information they’ve given you. So, it has to be run very, very well. It can’t just be a rote exercise.

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I think that kind of listening on various levels is important. But then you’ve got to be able to respond, and that means that those first-line managers particularly have to have the capacity to respond. Which means they’ve got to give the confidence to their people that you can talk to me about this and it’s not going to be an occasion for going after you or punishing or firing you or whatever, but that we can talk about this and we’re going to be able to solve some problems. And that’s a big climb for a lot of organizations: people don’t want to talk to anybody about this in a lot of settings. So those kinds of characteristics, with a real commitment to having a workplace with a setting where people are going to thrive, that’s what’s called for.

Paul Sephton: Really interesting. And if I do a full circle and jump back to you or I as the individuals, and I think that I’m sensing I’m on the verge of burnout, are there practical steps I can take engaging in a conversation with my manager to immediately sort of re-delegate or calibrate my workload? Should I consider taking an afternoon off, a week off? What are the right steps that I can take as an individual to help deal with a sense of impending burnout?

Michael Leiter: Here’s something you do is an individual, which would help inform that whole relationship development: do a self-study of yourself. This could mean keeping a log on your phone, whatever device you use, even a piece of paper – people still use that! – to keep a log. At the end of each workday, you can just make notes on what the high points of the day were.” When did I really feel I was having a good time, I was energetic, I was really involved, what was I doing and for how long?” And then you go, “Okay, what was the real low point of this workday? When did I feel exhausted, when did I feel, ‘Oh, this is a waste of time.’ Where were the low points and how much time did I spend on the low points?”

If you keep track of the high points and the low points each day for a while, now you’ve got something that’s giving you a lot of information. You’ll find that there are themes that will develop about what it is that’s the drain on you and what’s on the high end of you. And then to what extent can you adjust and, even by yourself, nudge things so you’re spending more time doing the fun things and less time doing the drudgery. And you can work it out with some of your colleagues so that you talk to them about it and say, “Look, I really like doing this, I really hate doing that,” and they say, “Well, we hate doing that too.” “So, okay. Well, is there any way we can organize that together so that we can get this drudgery out of the way more effectively?” That way, you’re not just dumping your unloved work onto your colleagues, because they’ll get you for that. They’ll figure it out, they’re smart.

Eventually it’s something you can talk to the manager about. It’s not just coming in and saying, “I don’t want to.” You’ve got some background and you can say, “Here’s what I think is going to work a whole lot better for me.” You’re giving them some direction, you’re helping them do their job more effectively.

If you can get a good rest in your soul, as well as in your sleep, then you’re going to be able to sustain a lot longer.

So, that looks at things within the workplace. I think in terms of your personal life, energy is a particularly important thing: what’s happening in your life that’s giving you rest and recovery so that you can get back to work with your energy?

Basically, the idea isn’t to go to work and come back just as energetic as you started. Most days, you’re going to use up energy going to work. The important question is how to recover that energy. One is to do different kinds of things at home than at work. I think if you’re working on computers all day, don’t go home and play computer games all night. So that’s one: just do something different, have a variety in your life, such that you’re actually recovering your energy, coming up with different ways of feeling about yourself and being able to push work out of your mind for a while. If you can do all of that then that’s going to help with your recovery so that you can sustain energy as best as you can. If you can get a good rest in your soul, as well as in your sleep, then you’re going to be able to sustain a lot longer.

Paul Sephton: I found this conversation incredibly intriguing. Thanks to Michael for the time. You’ve been listening to Dr. Michael Leiter on the Soundbar discussing burnout amongst the workforce during the pandemic and how we can reframe and respond to the issues around it. The Deakin University Honorary Professor is soon to release a new book on burnout with Christina Maslach, published later in 2021 by Harvard University Press. If you liked this episode, please don’t forget to subscribe to stay up to date on our latest episodes. Until next time, cheers for now.

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