So far, we’ve looked at the role that individual and personal factors play in the development of burnout. But what about the job itself? How might the nature of the work and how the work is organised either contribute to or protect you from burnout? One of the key principles in understanding burnout, and one that has been emphasised by the World Health Organization, is that burnout only occurs in the context of work.

In this chapter, we’ll take a deep dive into how the nature of work and how work is organised relates to burnout. In particular, we’ll explore how the quality of relationships in the workplace plays a pivotal role in both organisational and personal well-being. We’ll also look at how unconscious psychological processes within teams and organisations cause much workplace anxiety. Finally, we’ll consider a classic case study from the National Health Service that shows how all the above factors can come together to explain why things go wrong in an organisation and how we can put them right.

Jobs, roles and burnout in modern organisations

It’s important to understand the underlying processes in teams and organisations that contribute to burnout. Too often, explanations are superficial: it is easy to just say that the individual is weak or there is too much work. These two factors (personal vulnerability and excessive external demand) both contribute to the experience of burnout, but they don’t fully explain it. Also, in my experience of working with organisations I have found that these two factors play relatively minor roles when the drama of burnout begins to unfold in the workplace.

In Chapter 2, we started to look at some workplace factors that increase the probability of staff burnout, including poor work-life balance and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities. The common theme here is boundaries. The general conclusion of the research is that the clearer these boundaries are, the lower the risk of burnout (Hahn et al., 2011).

Here are some questions that you could ask yourself to clarify the boundaries around your job:

  • • When does work begin and end?
  • • When do I start and stop thinking about work?
  • • What am I responsible for at work and what am I held accountable for?

If you find it hard to answer these questions, maybe you should spend some time reflecting on your relationship with work and whether your job is causing more anxiety than it should. I’m not suggesting that you must be absolutely clear in your answers to the above. Our relationship with work isn’t black and white. But you should at least be able to respond to the questions with a “well, most of the time...” type of answer. If you can’t, then you may find that an unhealthy culture at work is becoming embodied in you. In other words, something that is outside you (organisational culture) is slowly becoming something that is inside you.

When poor organisational structures become embodied in individual lives, people get ill. The process is an insidious one, where we internalise bad ways of working and enact them in our life outside of work. A toxic organisational culture can really get under our skin to the point that it becomes a part of us.


The Holocaust wasn’t perpetrated by monsters but by ordinary people. That was the conclusion of Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Arendt, 1994). Adolf Eichmann was in charge of implementing the Final Solution - the Holocaust. Before standing trial, Eichmann was subject to a battery of psychological evaluations administered by six different psychologists. The results indicated that he wasn’t insane and he didn’t have a personality disorder, but in fact he was a highly conscientious, extroverted and agreeable person. His personality was found to be rather sycophantic; he took pride in doing a good job, and he wanted to be seen to be doing well and be promoted. Eichmann was ambitious, a rule-follower and a bureaucrat who could get the job done. In many respects, then, he was a model employee and the ideal corporate citizen.

Eichmann was, arguably, far removed from the face-to-face murders of the Holocaust. What about those who actually carried out the murders, who herded people into cattle trucks, shoved them into gas chambers, pulled the trigger? What sort of people were they? Well, no doubt some of them were sadists, psychopaths and monsters; but most were ordinary people just doing as they were told and not thinking about things too deeply.

In his book Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning describes a group of such people (Browning, 1992). The ‘ordinary men’ were a volunteer reserve police battalion in rural Germany, rather like our special constables or police community support officers. They weren’t professional police; they were postmen, tailors, businessmen and shopkeepers - people just like us. Most of them were in late middle-age and thus had grown up and matured in a pre-Nazi Germany. They weren’t young, fanatical Nazis.

The Nazi high command had underestimated the manpower needed to enact the Final Solution. In particular, they hadn’t quite grasped how scattered the Jewish population was in Poland; many lived in small rural villages. To boost manpower, they decided to draft in the reserve police battalion. The ‘ordinary men’ were deployed to Poland. Their task was to round up women and children from small, often remote Polish villages and execute them (the Jewish men had already been rounded up and sent off to work in concentration camps).


Because members of the battalion were middle-aged volunteers, they were given the option not to participate in the executions and just help to round up the victims. However, most chose to take part in the killings because they did not want to let their colleagues down - to let their comrades do all the dirty work. They also felt an obligation to comply with what was being asked of them because they believed that obedience to authority was important and was the right thing to do. The author and academic Daniel Goldhagen’s study of the Holocaust argued that this brutality wasn’t only the result of the ordinary camaraderie, but an ingrained German anti-Semitism that dated back well into the previous century (Goldhagen, 1997). Again, an example of how culture and belief gets under the skin of‘ordinary’ people and influencing them to behave in a manner that might seem superficially incompressible.

The accounts show that many members of the battalion found this work highly traumatising, and many began drinking heavily in an attempt to blot out the horror. But the fact remains that these ‘ordinary men’ did as they were told and marched women and children into a field, ordered them to lie down, placed their bayonet at the back of the head by the top of the spine and pulled the trigger.

The conclusion of both Arendt’s and Browning’s scholarly research was that it was ordinary Germans - ‘ordinary men’ - who made the Holocaust happen. It was people like us who rounded up millions of Jews and systematically shot them in forests, valleys and ditches, or pushed them into cattle trucks and guarded them on their way to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Dachau and Belsen.

There is a whole genre of research in social psychology that studies how ordinary, ‘normal’ people can do the most terrible things In the early 1970s, researchers established a pretend prison in the basement of Stanford University to study how people related to each other in a prison situation (Haney et al., 1973). These 1970s' students were randomly assigned the roles of guards or prisoners. The experiment had to be stopped after a few days because the ‘guards’ began to take their role a little too seriously and started to behave in a very authoritarian and sometimes sadistic manner. Similarly, ‘prisoners’ became passive, anxious and depressed. Remember, both ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ were randomly selected from the same population. The only factor that was different was the organisational role they were assigned.

This research was designed to show that many acts of cruelty and brutality aren’t carried out by monsters but by so-called normal people.

It also illustrates how easily organisational values and culture become internalised in individual personal behaviour.1

Why is this relevant to burnout? Well, if the organisation culture is one of overwork, lack of compassion and lack of integrity, then sooner or later these aspects of the culture will be internalised by many people who work within that organisation: they’ll overwork, they won’t be compassionate and they will ignore the need for integrity.

The work by Arendt, Browning and Zimbardo is terrifying because it shows that it’s not as difficult as you might think for an organisational culture to seduce normal people into behaving like monsters. The culture of the organisation becomes the belief system of the individual. If we accept this, then getting people to work in ways that cause burnout is a doddle. This is why burnout is an organisational issue as well as a personal experience of misery.

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