The surprising tipping point that defines whether employees will end up burnt out
Berkeley professor Christina Maslach, who pioneered academic research on the topic, identified three symptoms of burnout as emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. In her latest research, she and Michael Leiter tried to figure out whether it is possible to predict who would burn out.
They studied a group of employees twice one year apart and found out two patterns. In their first assessment, some employees show signs of either emotional exhaustion or cynicism, but not both. During the following year, employees either developed the second syndrome and became high on both emotional exhaustion or cynicism, or overcame the frustration and remained healthy. The tipping point was employees’ perception of fairness: those employees, who showed one symptom of burnout and thought their company to be unfair, were significantly more likely to burn out by the second assessment.
While the researches can’t explain the results and it remains unclear whether perception of fairness has the same impact in different contexts, it is obvious that it has a major impact on emotional wellbeing and morale of employees. The hidden danger is that being subjective, a person can label situation as unfair, while in reality there is a reason behind the behaviour of a manager or the company’s policy.
Matt Plummer, the founder of Zarvana, in his column for Inc., suggests asking yourself these three questions to understand if there is unfairness at play:
- Are there similarities among others experiencing the same unfavorable circumstances?
- Are leaders' motives actually what you assume they are?
- Are others' more favorable treatment compensating for past inequities they've experienced?
It may be difficult to be objective, go beyond cynicism and second-guess other people motives, but what felt like purposeful unfairness can turn out to be a well-thought strategy, when you see a broader picture.