Time & Attendance
By Andie Burjek
Jan. 23, 2020
Social psychologist Christina Maslach, known for her pioneering research about occupational burnout in the 1970s and ’80s, spoke at a conference for medical professionals in Chicago in 2017. I was lucky enough to attend.
I think about her session every time I read or research something about burnout — which, as most everyone on LinkedIn knows, is an increasingly common subject to come across in the news.
One of her most vital yet obvious points at the 2017 conference was that while the term “occupational burnout” wasn’t coined until the late 1970s, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before the ’70s. People just didn’t talk about it.
Not even academia took it seriously in the 1970s. Maslach first published her seminal research on burnout in a non-academic publication, resulting in a large amount of reader feedback from employees who had experienced burnout.
While the conference session focused on burnout among medical professionals, many of Maslach’s findings also apply to a group of employees that receive much less attention than salaried medical staff: hourly shift workers. Just like academia didn’t take burnout seriously decades ago, I wonder if some organizations still have the same attitude toward this hourly, generally less-educated group of employees.
“As technology and automation advance to simplify the lives of skilled laborers, the needs of low-wage hourly workers are forgotten,” wrote WorkJam CEO Steve Kramer in a recent article. He stressed a few reasons why low-wage workers might be experiencing burnout and what their needs are. He also noted that increasing productivity expectations, no predictable hours and chronic understaffing are a few of the major reasons for hourly employee burnout.
Employers are not powerless against this burnout, though, he wrote. He suggested technology as a potential solution for managing burnout.
Some digital tools, for example, allow frontline workers to give feedback and constructive criticism to managers and higher-ups. Other tools allow employees more agency in the scheduling process. Also, digital, personal training exists that can help employees learn new skills.
I would like to argue that managing burnout among hourly workers is not as simple as “run to the shiny new technology.” If a manager gets anonymous feedback that they’ve created a stressful work environment, what if they’re the type of manager that wouldn’t do anything to change?
If employees express that productivity goals are unrealistic for individual employees, what if the company sees that as employee laziness rather than a valid concern? If an employee has issues with whatever digital tool is used by their manager, will company decision makers actually think about replacing it with something less problematic?
As Vox writer Emily Guendelsberger points out in her essay, “I was a fast-food worker. Let me tell you about burnout,” enhanced technology has improved the lives of many skilled, educated workers. Meanwhile, the same advancements allow employers to track worker productivity down to the second — a reality that helps create burnout in hourly workers.
In 2019, after the newspaper she worked at closed, journalist Guendelsberger decided to work three different hourly jobs (in an Amazon warehouse, at a call center, and at a McDonald’s) to see how tech was now being used and to gauge how working in these jobs had changed over the years.
Here’s one of the changes she noticed:
“When I used to do service work, we still mostly used paper time cards; you could make your case to the manager if you were late, or maybe stay a few minutes beyond your shift to make up for it. At many modern service jobs, the digital time-clock system will automatically penalize you for clocking in a minute after the start of your shift or after a break.”
This is just one example, but it shows how the lack of humanity in digital systems could potentially punish someone for being human and making a small mistake occasionally. Could there be any way for digital tools to treat employees like people and give them some leeway? Not leeway to come in 15 minutes late every other day, but to come in five minutes late every once in a while.
While I don’t doubt that technology has the potential to help any type of employee, I’d encourage company decision makers to think critically about the impact of certain technology on low-wage employees. Rather than romanticize the potential of tech, try thinking about it rationally. Ask yourself a few questions: How are my expectations impacting employees’ stress levels? Could this burnout lead to health problems in my employees? Do I expect my hourly workers to work like humans or machines? Are the hourly wages my company offers keeping up with the rising expectations of how much these people must do on a daily basis?
The modern working class of America are fast food, retail, warehousing, delivery and call center workers, as Guendelsberger noted. “These jobs are not just a source of teenage pocket money; they’re something adults are trying to survive on,” she wrote. Burned-out fast food workers might suffer physically by accidentally burning themselves or suffer mental stress from constantly putting up with rude customers.
Just like we should care that white-collar professionals and medical professionals may make mistakes due to burnout, we should care that working class employees go through the same. Burnout isn’t just an affliction of the middle or high-class employee.
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