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  • Writer's picturePaul DeChant MD, MBA

Christina Maslach: “Take On Burnout Where You Are”

“The last thing someone who is exhausted can do is take on a big change, but we can engage in small changes that make a difference.”

Christina Maslach, PhD, Professor Emerita of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), and co-author of many books including the classic The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, and a forthcoming book in 2022, shared this perspective with me recently when I interviewed her in preparation for the upcoming Healthcare Burnout Symposium in San Francisco. She will be presenting the closing keynote on January 26th.

Dr. Maslach is one of the leading international experts on burnout in all industries. Not surprisingly, burnout in healthcare features prominently in her work.

“It’s easier to start small, not with revolutionary change, but with doable activities,” she pointed out, sharing a number of examples she’s found in her work across industries described below.

"Cuddle Huddles"

A medical office used to start their day with a huddle run by the lead physician to review the schedule. One day, a nurse with a sick child at home gathered the courage to break with protocol and speak up about her need to leave early when her babysitter could no longer watch her child that afternoon. Everyone on the team pulled together to figure out how to cover the day.

This incident led them to check in on one another in their huddles, becoming more comfortable talking with each other about work and personal issues, and they became better at working together. They dubbed this new approach the “Cuddle Huddle” and the change stuck. With improved collaboration they are better at implementing improvements in the office.

Fairness and Values

For some organizations, fairness and values are bigger issues than work overload or lack of control. An organization engaged Dr. Maslach to assess the causes of burnout among its staff. During the assessment it became clear that a “Distinguished Service Award” was actually a significant cause of dissatisfaction. When she pointed this out during a presentation, the employee audience applauded.

The leader was surprised but reacted positively and and asked a multidisciplinary team from across the organization to design a a process that is viewed as fair to all. Following this change, people realized that things could get better if they spoke up, and the company holds an annual “Let’s Hear It” campaign to identify and fix current problems.

Giving people the opportunity to identify and solve their problems

The workers in an office that coordinated the activities across multiple divisions of a company were constantly overwhelmed, working through lunch and putting in overtime, still unable to catch up due to constant interruption from people coming to them with their needs. They realized that the resulting chaos impaired their ability to focus.

Their solution was to close the office to outside interruptions for the first two hours of the day, after which they were full available. This solved the problem. They were able to get the same amount of work done, taking lunch every day, and eliminating overtime.

What’s changing about burnout?

Dr. Maslach tells me that the classic six drivers of burnout – work overload, lack of control, insufficient reward, breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and conflicting values – haven’t changed in over 20 years, despite changing work culture, technology, and demographics.

What has changed is the environment in which they manifest:

  • Many industries are struggling with severe understaffing, including healthcare and cybersecurity. In such situations, some workplaces become less welcoming, making it harder to hire new staff and reduce turnover.

  • People are afraid to say “no” to requests for overtime, not wanting to appear to be anything less than 100% committed.

  • Incivility has increased in the workplace just as it has in society as a whole. This is exacerbated by virtual meetings, particularly when people turn off their cameras. It’s easier to ignore others or treat them poorly when people are not together in the same physical space.

The Stigma of Burnout

One thing that has not changed is the fear of appearing vulnerable. People are afraid to show any weakness, to raise questions, to admit to not doing something well enough. This is a problem because vulnerability is how we learn.

This stigma has serious consequences. Suicide is all too common in both healthcare and high tech, in large part because people are afraid to ask for help when they are struggling. They have seen others’ careers impacted by such admissions.

As an example, Corey Feist, President of the Lorna Breen Foundation, will also be presenting at the conference. The Foundation, whose mission is to reduce burnout of health care professionals and safeguard their well-being and job satisfaction, is named for his sister-in-law, an ER physician in New York who died by suicide early in the pandemic resulting from her personal struggles dealing with the overwhelming patient suffering and inability to save her patients.

For an organization to improve its performance, its people have to learn and grow. To learn and grow, people need to feel safe. Creating a safe environment is one of a leader’s major responsibilities.

Your Opportunity to Learn More

The Healthcare Burnout Symposium will take place January 24-26 at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero in San Francisco. Don’t miss this opportunity to meet Dr. Maslach and network with all of the outstanding faculty of leaders in clinician wellness from across the country. Strict pandemic safety protocols will be in place.

If you have any questions, you can contact me at


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