Dr. Christina Maslach is the research psychology pioneer of job burnout. In addition to award-winning articles and books that Maslach has written on the subject, she also constructed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the most widely-used tool for measuring job burnout around the world.
Decades of Maslach’s work helped serve as the foundation of the 2019 decision by the World Health Organization (WHO) to formally recognize burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” with health consequences.
Maslach has been a member of Berkeley’s faculty since 1971. She’s currently a Professor Emerita of Psychology.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you briefly summarize what job burnout is?
Job burnout is an experience or response to chronic job stressors that have not been successfully managed. And that experience of burnout consists of three interrelated components: inefficacy, cynicism, and exhaustion. Your experience at work is not just getting you exhausted, it’s building up that cynicism about, “Why do I have to face another day of this?” For me, the cynicism, more than the exhaustion, is the key defining piece for burnout.
How can we recognize job burnout, if it exists in our own lives?
Oftentimes, people have very good ideas about what is not working and what their chronic stressors are. These are the everyday things — they’re like pebbles in your shoe. It’s an erosion of your soul. I would point to the six areas of job-person-fit: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. If people can begin to identify where these chronic pebbles in the shoe are, in any one or more of those six areas, it’s saying, “Here’s what’s not working. What would make it better?” There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to address burnout — so it’s important to use these questions and take action.
How old is job burnout?
Stress response in the world of work has clearly been around much longer than we may have thought. But in terms of the research that’s been done on it, at least 50 years. When I was doing research and starting to talk to people about these kinds of experiences, I was looking for other concepts—like “detached concern” or “dehumanization in self defense.” But the people I was speaking to didn’t relate to those terms. Then one day, I was chatting with somebody about my interviews. She said, “I used to work in poverty law, and we talked about that. We called it ‘burnout.’” So during the next interviews I would ask, “What about burnout?” And they answered, “Yes, that’s it!” And so “burnout” was something that people identified with and responded to. It’s got that vivid imagery, and it captured their feeling.
What led you to study this subject?
It was really accidental. I didn’t start out studying burnout. I had done research on emotions and was interested in how you respond when the kind of feelings you’re having may not always be helpful for you in a particular job. When I came to Berkeley, they didn’t have a lab for me to do the kind of emotional research I had done before. So I thought, “While I’m waiting for the lab, let me do interviews with people who are actually working in these kinds of situations. Let me learn from them.” After a while, it was like, “I’m hearing a similar theme and set of experiences from people—very different people in very different jobs. And there’s a rhythm going on here. There’s a story that’s beginning to emerge from this.”
In 2019, the WHO recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon. What is the significance of this recognition?
It was huge. And not a decision made overnight. The WHO was looking at all of the research over many decades. They recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” which can have health implications but is not a medical condition. It was significant to have the WHO make it really clear that burnout was a stress response to chronic stressors that had not been successfully managed. It gave a WHO “seal of approval” to the fact that this is a legitimate phenomenon, this is a problem, and this is something that needs to be addressed for people’s health, well-being, job success, and all the rest of it.