#RSAC: Realize Reality of Workplace Burnout

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In a discussion chaired by PTC CSO and I Am The Cavalry founder Josh Corman, Christina Maslach, professor of psychology, Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley discussed the common reasons for stress and burnout in the workplace, and how to spot and deal with the common traits.

Opening the session at RSA Conference 2019, Corman said that burnout is too often seen as a sign of weakness and “something which happens to someone else,” but asked how many people had missed family events because of an incident response scenario or through being at a conference. “We’ve seen people get jaded and cynical, and lost some to suicide and alcohol and substance abuse,” he said.

Acknowledging research on the issue of burnout at BSides Las Vegas which had been met with criticism on social media, Corman said that we “attract people in and churn them out, so RSA wanted us to stop talking about it and do something about it.”

Maslach, who created the Maslach Burnout Index, said that the term burnout was acknowledged better by people than just stress, and it is “seen as a thermometer” of performance. “There are consequences in terms of poor performance and errors, and physical health problems which affects your family, and if it begins to be a problem we see depression and suicide,” she said. 

“It is not just ‘having a bad day,’ it has long term implications for everyone we get in touch with and becomes part of a socially toxic environment.”

Maslach highlighted three measurements:

  • Exhaustion – a classic stress response which comes from an inbalance from demands and resources to meet those demands
  • Cynicism – a “much more classic bottom line for burnout” where someone becomes very negative and hostile at work, and rather than trying to do their best they do the bare minimum. “Take this job and shove it mentality means quality of work goes down and affects clients, and colleagues”
  • Efficacy and futility – a syndrome of beginning to lose the sense of being good at what you do, and this erodes not just feelings of energy, but the feeling of not being good enough.

Maslach also highlighted six areas of inbalance:

  • Workload – where the balance of workload and resources to do them are low
  • Control – making the autonomous choices on how to get the job done
  • Social reward – recognition; doing something well and it gets noticed by others
  • Workplace community – people you have relationships with and who you are in regular contact with, and unresolved conflict can be an issue
  • Fairness – where things are done fairly in an office, and where it is unfair if you have biases and glass ceilings
  • Values – meaning or purpose, and what makes you excited and proud about doing your work, and are you working in an environment with ethical concerns?

Corman acknowledged the problem of security invariably looking for things that people have done wrong, such as in code review, and that when you have a secret and hold onto it for too long “there is almost a radioactive half life to it and a weight to it which we need to put down.”

The speakers cited the reference of the canary in the coalmine, and that you don’t tell the canary to “toughen up or do yoga,” instead that bird is the warning sign of a toxic environment, and an unsafe place for people to work.

In conclusion, Corman said that you have a choice in this matter; to laugh at it, or to “focus on better angels and people who make this work and treat others as humans."

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