Emotional Labor, Great Expectations, and The End of Burnout

in burnout, industrial organizational psychology, Stress, Uncategorized

Venn Diagram

Emotional labor was conceptualized by sociologist Arlie Hochschild as work that requires the job holder to fake (surface acting) or modify (deep acting) their emotions. It’s often misinterpreted to mean emotionally intense work.

For example:

Service industry employees instructed to smile and pretend to be upbeat under high-stress circumstances — like interactions with hostile customers — typically engage in surface acting, which has been implicated in burnout.

Relatedly: Jonathan Malesic, in The End of Burnout — besides tracing burnout to job conditions and “work culture” — proposes that consumers, and even co-workers, hold ourselves accountable:

To beat burnout and help others flourish, we need to lower not only our expectations for our own work but also our expectations of what others’ work can do for us.

The book cover for "The End of Burnout"

Click to purchase. (Affiliate link)

Listen Up, Millenials and Boomers: Generation Labels are “Stupid”

in Uncategorized

multiple generations in an office workplace

The supposed distinctions between millennials, Gen-Z, boomers, and other generational strata — especially as they manifest in the workplace — are nonsense at worst, unconstructive at best.

As David Costanza and Lisa Finkelstein write in their article: Generationally Based Differences in the Workplace: Is There a There There?

The fact is that there is (a) minimal empirical evidence actually supporting generationally based differences, (b) ample evidence supporting alternate explanations for differences that have been observed, (c) no sufficient explanation for why such differences should even exist, and (d) a lack of support for the effectiveness of interventions designed to address any such differences.

Writing in The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker described generational labels more bluntly:

They flatten out the experiences of tens of millions of very different people, remove nuance from conversations, and imply commonality where there may be none. The social scientists are right: Generational labels are stupid.

Evidence: You’re foot is on fire — what do you do?

in Employee Wellness Programs, Uncategorized, Wellbeing

feet in shoes that are on fire

In an online discussion, Don McCreary, the senior consultant of Donald McCreary Scientific Consulting, and someone for whom I have the utmost respect, was making a case for “a scientific publishing paradigm that supported the publication and dissemination of negative findings.” To exemplify this need, he offered the example of workplace mental health prevention:

There are so many programs that say they are evidence-based, but there’s no evidence that they actually do what they say they do. Are they marketing us snake oil by relying on the phrase “evidence-based” because they’re too lazy to collect the evidence or is it because they have data to show that the program they’re selling or marketing doesn’t work?”

Claims of “evidence based” in all aspects of wellbeing warrant closer scrutiny.

“Are they marketing us snake oil?” I offered my take:

There are other possibilities, though they may be variations of those Dr. McCreary identified:

  1. Buyers and sellers are naive and/or ill-informed, and believe their products/services are evidence-based, even when they’re not. They feel it’s accurate to call something evidence-based because it draws on a framework for which there’s evidence, because they have internal data demonstrating positive outcomes, or even because they can cite a study showing that an intervention like theirs was effective—none of which justifies calling their program evidence-based.
  2. Employers/purchasers don’t care about evidence and aren’t persuaded by it. But they like buying stuff they can say is evidence-based.
  3. Consumers of services, including many employees, also deem evidence uncompelling. This is borne out by a simple glance at the self-help bestseller list or health food section of a grocery store — endless claims of science-ishness (including mental health benefits!), with no real evidence.

All that said, to make evidence a prerequisite for all employee wellbeing interventions might be an unnecessary and unachievable burden. Someone once said:

If my foot is on fire, I don’t need a meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies before I ask someone to throw a bucket of water on it.

Or, as I wrote to Dr. McCreary:

Instead of calling everything evidence-based just to fuel the wellbeing marketplace, there’d be value in broad discussion about “when should a workplace intervention be limited to evidence-based programs/strategies?”

I’ve come to believe it’s okay to implement an intervention if it’s something employees want and we have good reason to believe it will do no harm. This might include, for example, mindfulness programs and physical fitness opportunities, as well as organizational interventions to reduce psychosocial risk factors.

Most HR managers and business leaders don’t know the first thing about evidence — nor should they, any more than a research methodologist should be able to, say, describe the details of workers’ comp regulations and practices.

It will be better to promote education about evidence and the role it should (or should not) play in employee wellbeing strategies, rather than just pretending programs are evidence-based when they probably aren’t.

“Weak Ties” Round Out Your Social Portfolio

in Uncategorized, Wellbeing

tangled spaghetti

Weak social ties are essential to your “diverse social portfolio.” Yet they get short shrift in discussions of connection and loneliness.

Even Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in his landmark Harvard Business Review article “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic” (which sounded a much needed alarm), bypassed our learnings about weak ties, writing:

“Happy hours, coffee breaks, team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships?”

The answer is no, but the next question must be, “Are ‘deep relationships’ the only kind that count?”

Really enjoyed researching and writing this piece for Health Enhancement Systems (HES):

Social Connection: Beyond Besties

Bargain Basement: The Future of EAPs?

in EAPs, Uncategorized

I’ve often argued that EAPs have gotten a free pass —complacently marketing limited, outdated, poor-quality services, albeit at a relatively low price. Employers have willingly played along, readily purchasing this relatively cheap employee benefit so that they can check the box. “We have a mental health strategy.” Utilization is notoriously low, and most employers do little to promote the service beyond handing out a brochure or sending a link to new hires.

Recently, a client asked me, “What will become the key driver in the next 5 years moving employers away from EAPs?”

At a time when a lot of change is going on in mental health services, and market conditions are unprecedented, I can only guess 5 years ahead.

One possibility: EAPs survive as a bargain basement option. I can imagine benefit to more innovative, quality driven mental health service providers—those that may charge many times more than EAPs—helping clarify this distinction for employers.

I don’t foresee employers demanding more of EAPs, unless some jumbo employers collaboratively lead the way—for example, by setting standards thru purchasing consortiums.

Keep an eye on increased influence of organized labor. Maybe they will demand better quality. If I were running a mental health company, I might consider promotion direct to labor organizations as part of the long game. Not sure—it’s not my area of expertise.

A lot depends on consolidation. Do the newer solution providers consolidate and leverage their expanded resources to distinguish themselves from EAPs? Or do jumbo EAPs acquire and merge with some of the newer companies, in which case the future—in terms of quality and pricing—is anyone’s guess?

PS: I’m referring only to external EAPs (vendors). Not the internal employee assistance programs that health care organizations and universities sometimes provide for their employees.

On the Etymology of Burnout

in burnout, Uncategorized

burnout

The discovery — for lack of a better word — and naming of burnout is usually attributed to clinical psychologist Herbert Freudenberger and social psychologist Christina Maslach. The two (both of whom have extraordinary personal backgrounds, but we’ll leave that for another time) worked separately and apparently unknown to each other, but identified similar syndromes — originally considered something more like compassion fatigue unique to helping professions — and assigned the same name to it: Burnout.

This was in the early 1970s.

Maslach defined burnout as a work-related syndrome characterized by exhaustion, depersonalization (later, reframed as cynicism) and occupational inefficacy. But the term was quickly adopted as a popular catchall, taken to mean anything from overwork to acute stress to tiredness to job dissatisfaction to personal overwhelm. (Experts will say they agree on what burnout is and how it should be measured, but their work reveals they’re just as loosey-goosey as the rest of us. Based on a systematic review of physician burnout, researchers found there was little they could conclude about it: “Studies used at least 142 unique definitions for meeting overall burnout or burnout subscale criteria, indicating substantial disagreement in the literature on what constituted burnout…. Overall burnout prevalence ranged from 0% to 80.5%.”)

The public’s use of burnout to mean whatever we want it to mean in the moment was inevitable; burnout was a crowdsourced term with multiple meanings long before Freudenberger and Maslach appropriated it.

Freudenberger would’ve been hearing the term from his free-clinic patients (he quotes a dictionary definition in his original paper on the topic), and Maslach heard the term growing up as the daughter of an engineer who worked with the space program and spoke of burned out rocket boosters. Eventually she asked study subjects what they’d call their debilitating job experience and observed them perk up when they heard the suggestion, “Burnout?” 

Burnout always meant a lot of things. The word even was front and center in Graham Greene’s popular 1960 novel A Burnt-out Case. Its use as a wildcard only accelerated as the term was popularized by psychologists.

The etymology of burnout should offer us lessons in claiming and naming supposed psychological discoveries. If burnout was originally dubbed with a specific, descriptive term like Tridimensional Occupational Stress Syndrome (TOSS) — rather than asking subjects what they’d call it and offering a few suggestions from popular idioms — our course of understanding, preventing, and remediating it may have unfolded more efficiently and effectively..

Burn-Washing Job Burnout: Close, But No Cigar

in burnout, Uncategorized, Wellbeing

 

Cigar with smoke

A lot of employers offer pseudo-interventions I call “burn-washing” — they give employees a week off, for example, and proclaim themselves mental health heroes — to deflect accountability for job burnout.

I’m all for time off, but it doesn’t do anything for burnout if workers return to the same job conditions — or conditions that are worse because workload accumulated while everyone was kicking back for a week.

In a recent post, I shared the American Psychiatric Association’s latest tips on how to burn-wash. Yeesh.

A new vision of burnout solutions will have to address not just individual treatments and not just organizational interventions… but requisite changes in how our society views work, merit, and leisure. More on this in a future post.

Psych Group Is Blowin’ Smoke with Burnout Remedies

in burnout, Featured, industrial organizational psychology, Uncategorized

Person veiled in smoke to represent APA "blowing smoke" about burnout

The media and self-help industry offer a lot of bad advice on how to ease burnout: Be here now. Suffer through a resilience workshop. Dance to your favorite song (no, really — I witnessed a PhD-level psychologist prescribing this as a burnout remedy in a webinar for mental health coaches).

Now, in a post called Burnout: Small Changes Lead to Big Results (soon to be followed by an infographic), the American Psychiatric Association weighs in with its own tepid, unfounded advice, cloaked in a veneer of evidence: “Remind leaders…; Find opportunities…; Remind everyone…; Find ways…; Evaluate and ensure…; Consider part of the job… Find ways.”

Small Changes, Big Impact“? Well, the first half is true.

There’s no reason to think the Association’s tips will lead to any impact at all — big or small. To suggest otherwise is as dismissive of the pain of hardworking people as… well, as advice to dance to your favorite song.

I don’t mean to throw shade on the American Psychiatric Association. They don’t have much to work with. Nearly 50 years ago, psychologists came up with some compelling ideas about burnout. All these years later, we have no meaningful advice to offer employers — and no response to the folk remedies hawked by the self-help, HR consulting, and burgeoning mental health industries — because the research has been nothing other than a hot mess ever since.

Maybe it’s time for a reset? I’ll say more about this in a future post.

We have to do better than “Find ways.”

 

 

Corporate Cultures Too Wrecked To Be Fixed?

in Featured, industrial organizational psychology, total worker health, Uncategorized

shipwreck symbolizing some corporate cultures

 

I loved reading Implementation of an Organizational Intervention to Improve Low-Wage Food Service Workers’ Safety, Health and Wellbeing. As someone who has an interest in psychosocial (and physical) risk, and who has years of experience in the bizarro world of corporate dining, I find this study (which I’ve followed since it was first announced) to offer a window into what happens when worlds collide.

Many of us interested in organizational psych or corporate culture may poo-poo trendy behavior change programs, as if our organizational interventions are the panacea. This study reminds us, however, that organizations can be intractable beasts — rife with competing interests, diverse and intense demands, egos, inertia, turnover, and, of course, bureaucracy — not to be trifled with.

Comments from this publication that leave a lasting impression:

  • “…fissured work environment, with blurred accountability for worker health and safety.”
  • “…communication barriers between organizational units.”
  • “…no site manager completed the action planning tool for any of the modules, citing lack of time and job demands as barriers.”
  • “’…adding a chair and a mat for the cashier. For aesthetics, the client won’t allow this.'”
  • “Research team members… were not invited to attend huddles for the other two modules due to the sites’ time constraints and competing demands…”
  • “…challenges of a complex system with various interacting elements… The environment was characterized by low profitability, low wages, high turnover, conflicting demands, and limited potential to modify the workspace.”

A fascinating read with important lessons about the elements of organizational intervention… presented in the context of an eyes-wide-open look at the modern workplace.

A Doubt About Burnout

in burnout, Employee Wellness Programs, Featured, Uncategorized, Wellbeing

silhouette and flame representing burnout

I have doubt about burnout.

Understand, not only do I feel certain that employees experience exhaustion, cynicism, disengagement, self-doubt, and depression often as a result of work stressors, but I’ve spent the better part of my career spotlighting these processes in my work as a well-being practitioner. Further, if an employee says they’re burned out, I believe their experience is credible — it should be accepted, respected, and addressed.

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