Fairness and civility – key to avoiding burnout

Improving Health and Wellbeing

One of the world’s foremost experts on job burnout/engagement has joined Deakin.

They might sound like fundamental values, but research shows that fairness and basic civility are crucial for a fulfilling workplace – and they are not as widespread as we would hope.

In the modern workplace, many people are facing added pressures, whether this be caused by automation, the Internet or higher expectations. The research is clear, however, as to how people can remain engaged at work and avoid burnout.

So says organisational psychologist Professor Michael Leiter, who is considered one of the world’s leading experts on job stress, burnout and engagement. Professor Leiter has journeyed across the globe, from Nova Scotia, Canada, to join Deakin University’s School of Psychology at Burwood.

He has held the position of Research Chair in Occupational Health and Wellbeing at Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia for the past 10 years.

“I was ready for a new challenge, Acadia is a small university, with only 3,500 students, on the Atlantic coast of Canada. The prospect of joining a larger team, with a strong focus on organisational psychology in a new environment was irresistible.”
Professor Michael Leiter
Professor Michael Leiter
Over a 25-year career, Professor Leiter has gained international renown for his approach to addressing burnout and building engagement. He founded the influential Canadian Centre for Organisational Research and Development at Acadia in 1991 and has authored/co-authored several popular books, as well as academic texts. His books include “Banishing Burnout,” “The Truth about Burnout” and “Work Engagement.”

With Christina Maslach (Professor of Psychology, University of California), he coined the term “work engagement” as the antithesis to burnout.

He has also consulted on occupational issues with companies in Canada, the USA, and Europe and is keen to establish new projects with colleagues, students and companies in Australia.

“Burnout interferes with people’s quality of life and their capacity to perform,” he said. “At any one time, it affects five to seven per cent of the working population. Given that most adults under 65 work, this equates to tens of thousands of Australians who are having a hard time at work and need some help.”

The symptoms of burnout can range from feeling tired and lacking energy, to full scale depression and chronic fatigue where people have trouble getting out of bed.

While there is no one cause of burnout, there are several “more likely culprits.” These are often related to management practices, job design and work culture, where people work too many hours, have boring, inflexible jobs, feel their workplace is unfair, or there is conflict amongst colleagues.

“One of the new factors contributing to burnout today is the weakening boundary between work and non-working life,” Professor Leiter noted.

“People need to draw a line themselves because the world will not draw that for them. In fact, people can sometimes be their own worst enemy. Many put excessive expectations on themselves and take feedback too much to heart. The world of work is becoming more intense, with higher levels of sophistication and higher standards.”

He claims that both employers and employees have a role to play in creating more fulfilling workplaces. The tools he has developed for both groups to address these issues are now used in many western countries. The free online “Work Life Self-assessment Test” can be used by individuals to gain insight into their values and career priorities.

For employers, the “CREW solution” offers an intensive process for workgroups to create fulfilling, supportive work environments, emphasising “Civility, Respect, and Engagement with Work.”

“Being engaged at work is very much about civility at work and the positive side of working relationships,” he said.

“Many people think psychology is only about studying what’s deep inside people. As an organisational psychologist, I’m more interested in what’s going on between people – collaboration, unresolved conflict, work culture, solvable problems and power issues. Addressing problems in these areas is central to creating happier workplaces.”

Professor Leiter’s Work Engagement Blog.

• Tips for avoiding burnout are summarised in the article “You can conquer burnout” published in “Scientific American” in 2015.