When Christina Maslach, PhD, started her psychology research career in the early 1970s, she didn’t know that her work would lead to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a measure for professional burnout that’s still being used today. She first published the inventory with coauthor Susan E. Jackson in 1981. Dr. Maslach, who is professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has researched and published extensively about burnout throughout her career, and has helped to define the way we discuss and understand the combination of stress, exhaustion, and powerlessness that endangers the careers—and lives—of many emergency physicians.
ACEP Now Medical Editor-in-Chief Kevin Klauer, DO, EJD, FACEP, recently sat down with Dr. Maslach to discuss the early research that led to her developing the Maslach Burnout Inventory and what she’s learned from decades of talking to people about burnout. Here is Part 1 of their conversation. Part 2 will appear in the October issue.
KK: Tell us how your background led you to work on this particularly important topic.
CM: I received a PhD in social psychology from Stanford University, and then I took a job at the University of California at Berkeley, where I’ve been for the rest of my career. I had done research on emotion while I was in the doctoral program, particularly focusing on how people dealt with some of the emotional challenges or crises they might experience.
At Berkeley, I wasn’t able to start doing my research because they hadn’t yet provided me with a research facility. So, I thought I’d go and interview some people who might give me some insight into their experience. From that, I would develop some hypotheses and research and so forth. I started interviewing some people who I thought might face these kinds of emotional challenges. I was talking with, in terms of health care, for example, physicians who were working in emergency departments, with oncology wards, and nurses—and people would keep referring me to somebody else—just talking to psychiatric nurses, police officers, ministers, and different people who sometimes had some very difficult situations.
What I found in the interviews was very serendipitous. I had never heard about burnout. I wasn’t talking about burnout, but what was happening in the interviews is that people would say, “Here’s what’s happening. I know this is confidential, so I’ve never really said much about it to anybody, but …” Then they would be describing their particular story, and what I found was there was a kind of a rhythm to the story; there were some fairly common themes.