Dr. Leiter is a world-renowned expert on the psychology of work. His ground-breaking research on job burnout and work engagement - a term he coined - has produced widely acclaimed books. In a concerted commitment to improving work-life quality, he consults with organisations and researchers around the world. He is highly sought as a keynote speaker for diverse audiences, including public sector executives, health care providers, and human resource professionals. He is currently a Professor of Industrial and Organisational Psychology at Deakin University in Australia. To know more about the work and research of Professor Leiter go check out his blog, WorkEngagement. What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Professor Leiter, make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight!
Agnes Uhereczky: May I ask you to tell listeners a little bit about yourself and work? What led you to deep dive and research job-related burnout?
Michael Leiter: Thank you. My original training and PhD was actually in clinical psychology focusing on family therapy, which is a discipline that puts your attention on what's going on between people much more than what's going on in the depth of people. It was a very easy transition into looking at organisational psychology, where instead of family groups you are looking at workgroups and how things occur when people are interacting with each other and things work out fine, or actually go off the rail. This is really looking at what's going on between that person and the environment in which he or she is working.
I was working at a residential mental facility back in the 1980s when I read Christina Maslach's initial article with Susan Jackson on job burnout. I said “this is interesting” as it relates to the kind of crisis I saw happening in the work environment around me. So, one day I just picked up the telephone - it was back then when people communicated by telephone - and phoned her to say hi. After a short introduction, I offered myself to come to Berkeley for my upcoming sabbatical year and learn about burnout and work on this issue. She said: fine. So, I drove to California and spent a year there, and the rest, as they say, is history. Ever since I have been working on this topic in Canada and now in Australia. The issue remains one that people are exploring as conceptual ideas as well as the practical issues about how do you address this as a problem in people’s careers.
Agnes Uhereczky: There are dozens of articles and blog posts about burnout nowadays. What is burnout really? I wonder if sometimes people have a misconception about what it is and that misguides the attempted solution.
Michael Leiter: You are right that there is a lot of advice about burnout these days. There is a lot you can read both online or in a paper journal. One thing you find when you look at the research, and there has been a lot of research about burnout over the last decade, is that precious little of that research is on evaluating intervention studies. Very little of the research is actually testing out methods for addressing the problem. Intervention research is relatively rare. At this stage, I am much more interested in intervention, as when you can change something, in particular, change it for the better, that you both learn a lot rather then looking at it from a different point of view, which doesn’t necessarily get you that far.
What I have been focused on in that regard has brought to me the idea that the most useful way to look at burnout is really as a relationship breakdown. And the relationship that is central here is the relationship between the person and their work context. That’s the relationship where there are expectations, obligations, demands and hopes. Equally, there is a long timeline. I believe that it is really more useful to think about as something that's going on between the people, between a person and a work context. You could think of it as an emotional disturbance within the person. A lot of these approaches locate the problem entirely within the person. The assumption behind is that workplaces are perfectly well managed and completely reasonable places to spend your life. But another way to look at it is to say that you don't really have to emotionally be disturbed in order to dislike bad management.
Actually, workplaces are settings where people not only spend a lot of time but are working through very important dimensions of who they are as persons.
This is really about finding out how they relate to other capable people in terms of relationships and capabilities. This is your capacity to affect the world and make a difference in your life. A lot of this is going to happen through a work setting. These are very important settings, and to be frustrated in those aspirations is something that has an emotional kind of impact on people.
The most useful way to look at burnout is really as a relationship breakdown.
There is two particular parts to these relationships. Two dimensions that are quite important, one of which has to do with your energy level. That is a very precious kind of resource. In fact, you need to be able to work in a way that sustains that in a reasonable time, and allows capacity to recover that energy. The other dimension has to do with values. These are primary motivations such as connecting with other people, with pursuing ideas that they want to realize in their lives through the quality or direction of their work. That sense of agency of having an impact on the world being able to do that. The real question is what happens when these aspirations and dimensions encounter the environment, in which they are working day in and day out. Are they being stretched or get hurdled? When those kinds of things happen people feel disengaged, cynical, depersonalized. They can feel a lack of advocacy, exhaustion etc. We can think about it entirely as some sort of quality of that particular person that really misses the point, that is the quality of how this person is interacting with the environment, and how the environment is interacting with the person.
Agnes Uhereczky: Burnout has become a bogeyman. We are still okay with a certain level of stress but get confused identifying burnout. We may not actually be conscious about what are actually the signs of burnout, or how can I tell that I am going down that road.
Michael Leiter: What are the indicators that individuals can pick up and identify that he or she is heading down that road towards burnout? It is very useful to be able to identify these things early in the process because when people get really the full burnout syndrome - for example, when they are exhausted every day etc. - it is very hard to get out of that. A lot of the time people not only have to change their job but change their entire career. So, being able to catch this before it starts galloping away is a very useful thing.
Let's just stick here with the prime indicators. One of which is exhaustion. This is a definitive piece to watch for. It is when someone feels tired before the work day begins. That is a key indicator. When you feel it once in a while just means that you have got an interesting social life. But if you feel it multiple times in your week, it could mean that things are out of kilter. Part of that can be entirely within the job being so intense or time demanding. It could be also how you interact with your personal life, what kind of rest and recovery are you finding in your life. Are you able to recover your energy? If not, that can be an issue. If you find that really there is nothing you can do in terms of improving your sleep, exercise or your time away, then with this job there is no way you can have a reasonable lifestyle in terms of recovering your energy. That is a big sign. Watch for that!
It doesn’t have to be a crisis with all three of those but they do tend to move together after a while.
Another is with the cynicism side of it. If you find that the only conversation you can have at work is complaining about what idiots the managers are around here. That’s not a good sign. The main thing about that is you have lost what you loved about the job in the first place. This is not a good place to be and means that you need to work towards a solution.
The third indicator that I wanted to talk about is that sense of advocacy which means having a sense that you are doing an important job and you are good at it. Essentially, the longer you do this job the smarter you are. If you are losing that and think like “the longer I do this job the more stuck I am” that is another sign that burnout is becoming a risk. The risk of burnout is increasing at that point.
Those are the key dimensions. Burnout is these subjective qualities of energy involvement and sense of advocacy and monitoring those particular feelings that seeing how they are impressing themselves in a day to day basis. It doesn’t have to be a crisis with all three of those but they do tend to move together after a while. Any of those is something worth attending to and think about possible adjustments.
Agnes Uhereczky: What did you find in your research in terms of the links between burnout and work engagement? What are the levers of work engagement employers and workplaces can start to focus on?
Michael Leiter: In the larger context, and earlier in my career, what we were looking at were issues such as energy, involvement, advocacy. Those are fundamental qualities. I like the idea that you have some core constructs, and the way they sort of mix and match in various ways defines some distinct sort of profiles with how people interact with work. The same way I look at engagement. I like building these profiles of how people experience their work life. Are those some very fundamental core dimensions or rather just having one distinct world like engagement and a whole other disconnected world that is called burnout.
What is associated with burnout? Most often it is a bad thing that is happening with people at work, and they have a clear idea in terms of unpleasant social encounters, injustice or excessive workload. This is bad stuff that pushes burnout. It is resources, positive social context with people and meaningful recognition, that moves over towards engagement.
You can find more of Professor Leiter's work on Researchgate.