The prospect of organizational burnout interventions has finally caught the attention of thought leaders. When reading articles comparing organizational approaches (ill-defined strategies targeting workload, job control, rewards, community, fairness, and values) to individual approaches (like mindfulness and resilience training) I’m reminded of The Who’s classic lyrics:
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
We’ve gone from the “superstition” of self-help, to paraphrase Jonathan Malesic in his brilliant book The End of Burnout, to the Gospel According to Maslach.
The latest burnout article widely shared and celebrated on LinkedIn is Self-Care is Not the Solution for Burnout, published in January 2022. It asserts, “three decades of research has demonstrated that work environments, not individual workers, have the greatest impact on the possibility of burnout and worker turnover.”
The statement is linked to…A meta-analysis?…A systematic review? No, to a 1988 journal article describing a study at a small hospital. “Three decades of research” means “research from three decades ago.” (Yes, there has been more research along these lines since 1988. There’s also been more research on other aspects of burnout, defining and measuring it a ton of different ways and, contrary to what the statement suggests, not pointing in any particular direction. Burnout research is like a weathervane spinning around in a tornado).
Later, the article reports: “During a presentation on burnout, Dr. Maslach outlined some of the factors that research has found leads to burnout.” The words presentation on burnout link to…a web page promoting a random European DevOps Summit in May.
Then the article refers to “things that research has shown to prevent burnout.” Prevent burnout is linked to a Gallup page, which, indeed, mentions the burnout-preventing “things.” But it doesn’t describe the research; it just links to other Gallup pages promoting the consulting company’s burnout-preventing thing implementation services.
Another link in the article goes to a Lewis & Clark Libraries log-in page.
Okay, this article was written by an independent psychologist and published on Medium. We shouldn’t expect great rigor. I’m not playing Gotcha with the author (and haven’t linked to his article because my purpose is not to discredit him). He got some links wrong — I’ve done that myself — but we need to be able to crank out ideas on the internet without worrying about perfection (though, it would be nice if the hundreds or thousands of LinkedIn members gushing about the article at least read beyond the headline).
Evidence Gets Mounted By The Harvard Business Review
A couple of years ago, the burnout article du jour, Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People, appeared in Harvard Business Review. The second sentence blared, “But evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle.”
Evidence is mounting! These very words linked…To a meta-analysis?…A systematic review? No, to a JAMA article, “Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes.” It’s an excellent study (I wrote about it in my 2019 post, The 4 Factiest Facts Overlooked in the Latest Wellness Study Kerfuffle) casting doubt on the effectiveness of wellness programs, but it doesn’t even mention burnout and the study itself doesn’t represent “mounting” anything — least of all mounting evidence that personal band-aids are “harming the battle.”
Indeed, instead of pretending the wellness program study supports any claims about burnout, hoping no one actually clicks on the link, we can look to it as a model for studying organizational interventions for burnout: with research that is pre-registered (so we’re not fishing around for outcomes after-the-fact), randomized (cluster randomized, in this case, which helps overcome specious excuses about not being able to conduct RCTs in workplaces), and controlled.
I strongly favor organizational interventions over individual solutions for burnout. But I do so recognizing that, at best, they’re supported by weak evidence suggesting moderate benefit.
More Focus. Less Hocus-Pocus.
There are no preventive or remedial burnout interventions — individual, organization, or any combination thereof — that are practical, scaleable, and have withstood rigorous testing with validated outcome measurement. Criticizing mindfulness, resilience, mental health apps, and self-care, while often justifiable, doesn’t make the evidence for organizational interventions any stronger.
Instead of relying on misdirection and exaggeration (and advice from burnout celebrities like Arianna Huffington), it would be better to be honest about the gaps in the existing science and focus on trying to fill them.
A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn, where it drew quite a bit of both support and consternation.