I stumbled across a really interesting Harvard Business Review article the other day about burnout. The premise was that maybe we think about burnout, stress and metal health in the workplace backwards.
According to the foremost expert on burnout, Christina Maslach, social psychologist and professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, we are attacking the problem from the wrong angle. She is one of three people responsible for the gold standard of measuring burnout — the eponymous Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) — and the coauthor of the Areas of Worklife Survey. Maslach worries about the new WHO classification in the IDC11. “Categorizing burnout as a disease was an attempt by the WHO to provide definitions for what is wrong with people, instead of what is wrong with companies,” she explains. “When we just look at the person, what that means is, ‘Hey we’ve got to treat that person.’ ‘You can’t work here because you’re the problem.’ ‘We have to get rid of that person.’ Then, it becomes that person’s problem, not the responsibility of the organization that employs them.”
The author, Jennifer Moss then goes on to talk about how it’s all of the little things that cause stress throughout our workday, and even the things that are attempts to help us with our stress become just another irritation.
Maslach shared a story with me of a CEO who decided to put a volleyball court on the roof of his office building. Employees would look up at it and see how little people were using it. It would make them cynical because that money could be going to so many other things. “They would think, If only I had some of that budget, I could fix [insert problem to be solved here].”
I cannot even count the number of things that I’ve seen like this over the years. Things no one asked for, or maybe one or two people asked for, like on site yoga classes, or free food, or organized lunch time exercising, or a shower in the restroom.
I don’t want a shower in the men’s room, I want a job that doesn’t end up requiring me to shower at the office.
Companies, and law firms especially, seem to be really good at trying to give attorneys and staff stuff to help with stress, but they rarely stop to consider ways to reduce the stress in the first place. Maybe instead of yoga classes, chair massages, or catered lunchtime lessons on stress management, they could take some of that money and hire enough people to spread the workload out a bit better? Look, I’m all in favor of dealing with mental health issues in the workplace, but we really need to get a grip on what the office might be contributing to the problem in the first place.
As the article mentions, it’s the little things, the ones no one would be petty enough to complain about, but they add up as pain points each and every day that we are in the office. It’s all the times they had to pick up the slack for someone who clearly can’t do their job that you refuse to do anything about. It’s all the times you scheduled meetings they couldn’t attend but that involved them, all the times you “thanked” employees with an early breakfast but forgot all the folks who work later in the day to make sure there’s coverage after hours, or scheduled a fun after-work event at 5, forgetting all the people who need to be in the office until 6-7. It’s all the times you emailed them late at night, or over the weekend, to “just ask a quick question”, but still held it against them when they were 10 minutes late Monday morning, or all the times they missed a family event because of work that just couldn’t wait, but really could have waited.
There aren’t enough yoga classes to make up for all of that, but more than that, we don’t want a yoga class during work, we want the time to go take a yoga class after work, or do whatever it is we want to do.
In the end, the advice in the article to actually ask your employees what they need, and what would help them be successful is good, but I wonder, again, about the legal industry. We are so risk-averse that I cannot even imagine a law firm being flexible to accommodate what different employees need. That might create a situation where they don’t treat every single employee exactly the same, as dumb as that might actually be. It makes no sense to do that when they are likely very different, with different needs, outside of the office, but we wouldn’t want to open ourselves to any claims of unfair practices. Much better to not do anything special and lose our best talent than to do that! So the secretary with young kids, the attorney with aging parents, the paralegal going through a divorce, and the new, single associate, all get the same expectations for how much if their time they should be working, and it’s never “less so you can do all the other things you need to do”.
You can add all sorts of things to our workday, you can pay us more, you can offer better benefits, free food, the best coffee, etc. and those are great, but the one thing that we can’t get anywhere else, is our time. The more of it you take, the less of it we have to do all the other things that are important and make life less stressful.
So, in the end, you are the problem.