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Reframing Workplace Burnout: The Canary in the Coalmine

May 13, 2024   ·  

Following an explosion in a Welsh coal mine in 1896, the engineer John Haldane invented a bird cage that enabled canaries to accompany workers into the murky depths of mines.

Because of their heightened sensitivity to the presence of carbon monoxide gas, distressed or dead birds acted as an early warning system.


What's this got to do with workplace burnout? 

We hear you ask.

The canary in the coalmine was first used as an analogy for workplace burnout by the pioneering researcher Dr Christina Maslach.

Try this thought experiment to illustrate...

Picture a canary.

Chances are you're imagining something like the below; beautiful yellow feathers, singing happily on its perch inside a gilded cage. 

A canary singing in its cage. A metaphor for workplace burnout and employee wellbeing.


But after a day at work, our feathered friend isn't doing so well. It's exhausted and blackened, with none of its former vitality.

A canary in the depths of a coalmine. A metaphor for workplace burnout and employee wellbeing.


Which of the following best captures your reaction?

A. It must be the canary... how can we make it more resilient?

B. It must be the coalmine... how can we make it less toxic?

It's obvious, isn't it? Option B is the only choice. It's the environment that needs work, not the canary.


Tackle workplace wellbeing at the root cause 

When it comes to the workplace, many organisations still treat poor employee wellbeing as a question of individual resilience.

Wellbeing programmes focus on fixing the employee through things like resilience training, wellness apps, gym memberships, and pizza Fridays.

But, as our canary demonstrates, the causes of distress are inextricably linked with work and the working environment.

After all, the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon and stress response:

"Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job; and reduced professional efficacy." 

If the causes of burnout lie in the workplace, then its only logical that the solutions address that environment too. 

To illustrate, in a study earlier this year Champion Health found that 65% of employees cite workload as the primary cause of workplace stress. 

This reflects the Maslach Burnout Inventory – the framework Dr. Christina Maslach is best known for – which clearly identifies six key causes of the phenomenon:

1. Workload 

2. Control 

3. Reward / recognition 

4. Community 

5. Fairness 

6. Values 

What is clear, then, is that wellbeing initiatives focused on fixing the individual are missing the point. 

Earlier this year, University of Oxford published a new study led by researcher William Fleming, which found no connection between individual-level mental wellbeing interventions and improved employee wellbeing. 

While there's little doubt initiatives like mindfulness are beneficial on an individual level, workplace wellbeing requires a more targeted approach. 


Start delivering on employee wellbeing 

"Burnout in individuals says more about the conditions of their job than it does about them. Contrary to popular opinion, it's not the individual but the organisation that needs to change." 

Dr Christina Maslach 

To reduce the impact of burnout on individuals and the bottom line, organisations must transition to a more proactive strategy that directly addresses the key drivers of burnout and other wellbeing issues. 

Our downloadable guide highlights the five essential foundations of a robust employee wellbeing strategy, and how you can go about putting them in place. 

Get your copy here


Lydia Blundell
Lydia Blundell

Brand & Content Manager , Connect with Lydia on LinkedIn

Healthy companiesCultureStrategyHappiness at workWellbeing

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