WorkLife with Adam Grant
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Anne Helen Petersen: I'm a person who gets stuff done. Like, I always have, I've never filed late, you know. If something needs to be done, I do it. My job is my entire identity.

Adam Grant: Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer at Buzzfeed. She covers a wide range of topics, from Hollywood to The White House. And sometimes, when Annie writes a story, the internet trolls come out of the woodwork.

AHP: I write articles for the internet, but I'm also told to kill myself, that I'm fat, or that someone's going to come and slit my dog's throat.

AG: Then she spent several months covering the midterm elections nonstop, and something happened to her.

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AHP: Oh, I burned out.

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AG: Burnout — the sense of exhaustion that doesn't go away with a good night's rest or an annual vacation.

AHP: I kind of went numb. I didn't feel like anything was exciting that I wanted to cover. I didn't feel like I had any good ideas. I cried on Skype with my editor, which is very out of character for me.

AG: She wasn't just exhausted. She was puzzled.

AHP: I started with why can't I get these dumb errands done on my to-do list. And that opened the door to these larger questions of burnout.

AG: Annie ended up writing an article about burnout, which went viral. She argued that millennials are so overworked and exhausted that simple errands, like mailing a letter or taking your shirts to the dry cleaner, feel impossible to complete.

AHP: I think the condition of burnout is the millennial condition. So it's the thing that best describes this generation's baseline.

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AG: I agree that burnout is a big problem. I'd just make a little edit. Burnout can happen to anyone, in any line of work, but it doesn't have to.

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I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work.

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Today, job burnout and why it's not inevitable.

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Thanks to SAP for sponsoring this episode.

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Last year, the World Health Organization declared burnout an occupational syndrome. According to some estimates, in the US alone, burned out employees cost over 100 billion dollars a year in healthcare spending. More than a third of employees report feeling burned out some of the time. Nearly a quarter feel that way very often or always. The core of burnout is emotional exhaustion, feeling so depleted and drained that you just don't have anything left to give your job. Evidence shows that when we're emotionally exhausted, our health suffers. Burnout has been linked to depression, memory loss, sleep problems, alcohol abuse, weakened immune systems and even cardiovascular disease. Our job performance suffers, too. When we're burned out, we get less done and make more mistakes. Eventually, we start to think about quitting.

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What causes burnout? In her Buzzfeed article, Anne Helen Petersen identified three drivers that I think are pretty important, the first of which is an ambient sense of job insecurity.

AHP: I think that the defining characteristic of millennials associated with burnout is precarity. So you don't have any of that predictability. The second big thing is our indebtedness, the fact that most of us graduated, either from high school or college, straight into the recession. And then on top of all that, you have digital technologies, which change the way that we interact with one another, and also how those digital technologies affect the actual experience of work.

AG: Wait, none of that is unique to millennials.

AHP: That's fair.

AG: You think it's fair? I haven't even told you why yet.

AHP: I think that it's OK for people to disagree. Like, not everyone has to think of their own experience in the same way.

AG: I definitely agree with that.

AHP: OK.

AG: So first of all, how do you define burnout.

AHP: Historically, it has been defined as a feeling of giving up, a feeling like you can't keep going anymore. And I think that that describes a lot of the most intense, acute, stereotypical cases of burnout.

AG: Annie's definition tracks with how burnout has traditionally been understood. That when you burn out, you burn all the way out. Recently though, all the talk of burnout has made the definition seem bigger and blurrier.

AHP: The way I think of our contemporary burnout is you go until you feel like you can't go anymore, and then you keep going. So there's no catharsis, there's no finishing the marathon. The feeling that everything in your life flattens into one long to-do list. And that means all of the joyful things, all of the pain-in-the-butt things, like, they all just kind of become one damn thing after another.

AG: So I don't buy that this is burnout, because as a psychologist, I've always thought about burnout as emotional exhaustion, but exhaustion that's persistent and also seriously impairs your functioning.

AHP: Yeah.

AG: And what you're describing sounds more like just plain stress.

AHP: I think it's very similar to stress and there's a fine line between having a lot of anxiety and being depressed, and what we consider burnout. I think that it's all of those things at once. You know the emotional component to it, I think, is very real. But I think it impairs you, but not so much that you entirely collapse, right?

AG: I worry a little bit that calling, kind of, everyday stress burnout, it starts to medicalize the problem. And it reifies it in a way that makes people feel like, "Oh, I have this horrible condition and I can't function." And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as opposed to normalizing it and saying, "You know what? Everybody has stress in their jobs. And that doesn't mean I'm burned out." It just sounds a little ridiculous to say, "Oh, I'm overworked, because I have to answer emails all day."

AHP: I mean, I don't think that that means that you necessarily have the same amount of acute stress. I mean, a social media manager also has to deal with a whole bunch of racist shit being flung at them all day. This is accumulation of decades of stress. And there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.

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AG: Wherever you draw the line on what counts as burnout, Annie and I agree that it's not a pleasant place to be. You've probably felt this way before, or maybe you feel burned out right now, whether you work in retail or manufacturing or public service, but you might be surprised that burnout is not necessarily about how hard you work.

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Take it from an occupation with one of the highest burnout rates, teaching.

Conrey Callahan: I loved teaching. I was always involved in teaching in lots of different ways.

AG: Conrey Callahan started teaching high school in Philadelphia in 2008. She was fresh out of college, excited about her career and the opportunity to create a better future for the next generation. But her school district was broke and the obstacles were big. About half the students Conrey taught dropped out of high school, few made it to college, and just a small fraction of those students would go on to graduate.

CC: I remember one of my students — he was a really, really bright kid, but not often in my classroom. And when we were talking about what was coming next, I mean, I will really never forget. He said, "Miss, I'm going to be dead by the time I'm 30. So, like, what does this matter?"

AG: Conrey wanted to make a difference. She poured everything she had into teaching. The workload was intense and exhausting.

CC: My general workday was typically around 12 hours. That didn't include any, like, planning, or I don't know, I probably can't even count the hours that I spent, the Saturdays and Sundays, grading papers. It was tough.

AG: She estimates she was putting in close to 100 hours a week — 100!

CC: It was bananas. The most difficult thing was kind of this feeling of, like, being trapped in this system where you're on, like, a hamster wheel. You're kind of, like, doing a lot and trying really hard, but is it really changing anything?

AG: That feeling Conrey had is important. Research shows that one of the major causes of burnout is a lack of efficacy, feeling incapable of making an impact.

CC: I think I felt the most burnt out when I felt like all the hours that I was putting in, I really couldn't tell if it was making a difference. And are you really moving the needle for kids who really deserve more?

AG: How much of the burnout experience was a sense of guilt? Like you were letting these students down.

CC: Yeah, I think that's at the heart of it, for sure. We call it Catholic guilt in my family, but yes. (Laughs) I mean, how can you sit there and watch kids who have so much potential just flounder? That just feels like such an immense failure.

AG: So what did Conrey do to overcome burnout? She worked more. She started a local chapter of a mentoring program and spent her weekends tutoring low-income, high-achieving students.

CC: You know, it was really fun, actually.

AG: You are an overworked, emotionally-exhausted teacher, and your idea of self-care is to then say, "Alright, I'm going to start another organization and volunteer for it." What kind of sick and twisted vacation is that?

CC: I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I felt really refreshed, and like I had a new, kind of, purpose and drive, and I found that I actually was a happier person.

AG: It almost sounds like it gave you a sense of hope.

CC: I think it probably did. And I think that really was a turning point for me. I ended up committing and staying a couple years longer in Philadelphia.

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AG: Your antidote to burnout is not necessarily less work. It could be more meaning. What was clever about Conrey's weekend tutoring was that it reconnected her to why she chose teaching in the first place. It enabled her to step out of the grind for a moment and see her impact, which is something you can do in any kind of job.

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In a study of hundreds of professionals keeping daily diaries across multiple industries, the single strongest predictor of engagement at work was a sense of daily progress. What that means in practice is you don't need huge accomplishments to feel good about your work. What matters most for building efficacy is small wins. Often those small wins come from having a positive impact on others. I found in my research that when people feel ineffective, helping others buffers against burnout. It makes them feel competent, which leaves them energized rather than exhausted.

For Conrey, tutoring high-achieving students on the weekends was full of small wins. She could see their progress quickly, and it rebuilt her confidence that she could help her own students. Let's be clear — I'm not suggesting anyone should work a hundred hours a week, let alone add more work on top of it. The point is that when you're burned out, it helps to find some small wins.

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These days, Conrey is looking for those wins as an elementary school principal.

CC: I am fortunate to work for a neighborhood school in Chicago Public Schools.

AG: And should I be calling you "Principal Callahan" from here on out?

CC: No, that's so awkward, please don't.

(Both laugh)

CC: I really encourage a first-name basis when we're not in front of kids at school.

AG: Alright, good. It also feels like I'm in trouble if I say that.

CC: You're not the only one.

AG: Although her hours aren't as crazy now, she still feels burned out once in awhile, but she's managed to maintain efficacy by keeping track of her small wins at work. From attending community events with parents and having hallway talks with teachers, to my favorite practice of Conrey's.

(Conrey laughs)

CC: Go hang out at recess with some kindergartners.

(Both laugh)

AG: Wait, I want adult recess. So I like this concept.

(Conrey laughs)

CC: Last week at recess, I started playing tag with my kindergartners, and I was in my high heels, so it was probably ridiculous.

(Both laugh)

But it started out with, like, three students, and all of the sudden, 40 students wanted to play tag at recess, and we're all laughing and playing together and just really not a care in the world and having fun. To see that you're so important to them is really inspiring, to be able to go back in and sit down and say, "OK, I'm going to work on this really hard thing, or I'm going to have this really hard conversation, because I have 40 kids out there who are depending on me for that."

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AG: Think about your experiences with burnout. What's your version of hanging out with kids at recess? For an architect, it might be strolling by a building you designed to see how people are living or working in it. For a business manager, it could be an individual check-in with a team member to ask how they're doing and how you can help them. For me, it's carving out a little time each week to send notes of appreciation to colleagues and recommend students for jobs.

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Small wins aren't hard to find if you look for them. But as Anne Helen Petersen knows all too well, sometimes you land in a situation at work where it feels like you're just on a treadmill.

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So tell me this. There are days in my job where I feel like I have too much to do, and there are a lot of people depending on me, and I can't respond to all of them as fast as I would like. And I keep just plowing through emails to try to get to inbox zero. Am I burned out?

AHP: I mean, that, I think, is a great example of what you would call stress.

(Laughs)

AG: Yes. And I would just like to learn to not even find that stressful. This my stance on it. As opposed to saying, "I'm burned out, I can't do this."

AHP: Right. So when, I'm frantically going between my work and personal email trying to, like, respond to all these things and, like, make lists and that sort of thing, and like actually not doing anything, I'm like, "This is a weird behavior that you're doing." Having realized that I'm burnt out, I recognize burnout behaviors.

AG: So it seems then that part of what you like about burnout is that it helps you recognize that this is a problem embedded in your circumstances. As opposed to a problem in your head.

AHP: Yeah, that's a great way of putting it.

AG: Annie and I landed on a key distinction. Burnout isn't just feeling emotionally exhausted for a little while. It's feeling that way often enough or intensely enough that it starts to interfere with your functioning, even if you don't actually quit. But unlike stress, burnout doesn't necessarily originate from the way you react to an event. It originates in particular kinds of jobs, in particular kinds of workplaces.

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Your organization probably has some practices that fuel a culture of burnout. So it shouldn't be up to you as an individual to conquer burnout alone. Your workplace is often responsible for the causes, so they should take responsibility for the cures. More on that after the break.

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OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I've played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today, we're going inside the workplace at SAP.

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Felicia Shafiq: I hadn't played volleyball or really any sports before I got to SAP.

AG: That's Felicia Shafiq, she's a product support manager. She's pretty tall, so when she started in 2005, her coworkers recruited her to join their SAP volleyball league.

FS: It was all paid for, so why not, right? That's how it all started, and I fell in love with the sport.

AG: Many leaders fear that hobbies are a distraction from work, but plenty of evidence shows the opposite. Leisure activities can energize us and increase our confidence and engagement at work, especially if they're very different from our jobs. Felicia practiced with her teammates twice a week after work, and competed in tournaments as often as she could. But that all changed one morning when she woke up feeling very sick.

FS: I woke up really shivering. And I thought I had the flu, but I had a volleyball tournament. By about 11 o'clock that same night, I wasn't able to breathe well, and I was rushed to the hospital and almost immediately put on life support.

AG: Felicia slipped into a coma. Days passed, then a week, then two. When Felicia woke up, she was completely disoriented.

FS: My first thought was "Where am I? I thought I just had the flu. Why are my hands and feet bandaged? And when can I get back to work?" I needed to be able to support not only myself, but my family.

AG: Felicia had contracted a severe strain of pneumonia, which poisoned her bloodstream. Her body pulled all her blood from her extremities, leaving her hands and feet to die slowly.

FS: The good news is that we won the volleyball tournament.

AG: Gradually, her hands got better, but her legs still weren't showing any signs of healing.

FS: The choice to have my legs amputated was mine. I decided that I wanted to move on with my life, that I would start becoming independent again.

AG: She spent another three years at home in recovery, but she wasn't alone in the process. Her managers and coworkers from SAP were there to offer her support every step of the way.

FS: What didn't they do? The biggest thing that they did was they reminded me that my job was safe. It was there when I was ready to come back, and that all I needed to focus on was my recovery. I can't even begin to explain the burden it took off my shoulders.

AG: After almost four long years of recovery and rehabilitation, Felicia was finally able to meet her goal and return to work. But there was still another dream that she wanted to get back to. After her legs were amputated, Felicia thought she would never play volleyball again. Then a friend suggested she try sitting volleyball, an adapted version for players with different abilities.

FS: It felt so amazing. It felt like I was home. Like this is where I was meant to be.

AG: Felicia decided to try out for the Canadian national team, and she made it.

(Cheers)

FS: We got a bronze, and we qualified for the Paralympics in Rio. That was surreal.

AG: And she says none of this would have been possible without everyone at SAP cheering her on.

FS: Playing any sport, dedicating time to train, to travel with the team, is so very important. A great way that SAP has supported me in this is by giving me the time to compete.

AG: Today, four years later, their encouragement hasn't stopped. Felicia and her team will soon be competing at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

FS: But if volleyball ends, I know that SAP will continue to support me in whatever I want to do. I think it's just the culture that we've created here.

AG: It's no surprise that SAP earned many Employer of Choice awards in 2019. Check out careers@sap and visit sap.com/worklife to learn about experience management solutions for your employees and customers.

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Burnout isn't an individual problem. It's an organizational problem, and it's contagious. Studies of nurses and doctors show that when one person becomes emotionally exhausted, their coworkers are more likely to catch it. And it affects the people you serve as well. When teachers are burned out, their students show elevated cortisol, a classic stress response. More and more organizations are dealing with burnout by offering mindfulness training. It might help with some of the symptoms, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem. If more than one person is facing burnout, deep breathing is a Band-Aid, not a repair. You need to change the structure of the job, or the culture of the organization. If you want to tackle burnout at scale, my favorite model is demand, control, support. In a nutshell, it says there are three ways to prevent emotional exhaustion. Reduce the demands of the job. Give people more control to handle them. And provide more support to help people cope. To see how demand, control, support works, we went to a couple places that deal with extreme emotional exhaustion, where burnout is often part of the job and the culture.

Adrienne Boissy: You know, we forget that culture is also a medium that bacteria and stuff grow on.

AG: Adrienne Boissy is a neurologist at one of the nation's foremost healthcare institutions, the Cleveland Clinic. Adrienne holds the title of Chief Experience Officer. She's in charge of making sure that patients get excellent care. And from her first days on the job, she could see that physicians couldn't provide that care when they were burning out. She's become an expert on the topic. She spent the past decade studying what causes burnout.

AB: You heard people say, "I went into healthcare to take care of people, and there's all these things in the way of doing that. Either there's too many patients in the ER that are waiting and piling up as I'm trying to spend time with this one, or my internal medicine appointments are getting shorter and shorter, or I'm spending all my time in the electronic health record after hours." And so it became apparent that there's this value conflict for people that does feel like moral distress as a driver of burnout. And that, for me, is where the burnout story began.

AG: So Adrienne set out to find a cure. Healthcare professionals are among the few occupational groups whose emotional exhaustion rates rival teachers'. Nearly half of physicians report being burned out. That costs the US economy about 4.6 billion dollars a year. When doctors and nurses burn out, they're prone to anxiety, depression and self-harm. They're also more likely to face malpractice claims.

Remember — demand, control, support. To fight burnout, the Cleveland Clinic started by reducing demands. One of the most frustrating job demands is electronic overload. Digital demands are overwhelming many people in many jobs. I bet you've been there, looking at your phone from your bed and feeling like you just can't keep up. There are some researchers who put those habits to good use. They can predict burnout by analyzing email patterns. Recent studies suggest that the volume of emails you send and receive is unrelated to your emotional exhaustion, as long as email is key to doing your job. But if email doesn't really help you get your work done, you feel the burden of being boxed in by your inbox. If you're a surgeon, email is rarely critical to your operations. In hospitals, digital demands come in the dreaded form of electronic health records.

AB: There's, like, 30 tabs on the left-hand side, and if you click on one of them, it opens up into another 20-tab menu.

(Adam laughs)

AB: I mean, it makes no sense.

AG: Oh, the joys of electronic health records.

AB: It makes no sense. So actually, we created task forces around better managing all the boxes and minimized even the number of categories or clicks that someone could even have in the electronic health record, as a means to make their life simpler.

AG: The demands weren't just digital. Medical professionals waste a lot of time on the phone, too. To eliminate the burden of calling insurance companies to authorize tests and pharmacies to approve refills, The Cleveland Clinic introduced preauthorizations and automated refills. They were able to reduce some of the demands on physicians, but not all of them.

Many of the demands are built into the job. You can't stop patients from getting sick and having emergencies. Since they couldn't erase those demands altogether, Adrienne and her colleagues turned to the next component of the demand, control, support model. And they did it in an unexpected way, which succeeded in reducing burnout.

AB: We had taken 40,000 caregivers offline, trained them in empathy.

AG: I'm ready to be wrong on this one, but it's surprising to me. I don't think I would have ever wanted to train empathy as a solution to burnout.

AB: I had faith, Adam, I had faith.

AG: Oh, well, that makes one of us.

(Both laugh)

AB: Well, thanks for the support, Adam.

(Distant laughter and conversation)

AG: We had to see it for ourselves, so let's go to the Cleveland Clinic.

AB: Hopefully, you're in the right place. (Laughs) So this is the ready to communicate, how to enhance —

AG: In a big conference room, a dozen practitioners sat in a circle.

Mary Beth Modic: Hello, I'm Mary Beth Modic. I'm a clinical nurse specialist, inpatient.

Aparna Prakash: I'm an internist at the Solon Family Health Center.

Participant 1: I'm a physical therapist.

AG: As an icebreaker, they told each other about their first car.

Participant 1: It was a little blue Chevy, and I called her Madame Blueberry.

Participant 2: My first car was a Chrysler Cordoba with crushed velvet interior.

(Laughter)

Participant 2: It was wonderful.

AG: Then they started to role-play scenarios that were designed to help caregivers have better conversations with patients.

(Overlapping indistinct voices)

Participant 3: And we've invented a way to record voices and sounds that you can recall on this device and play anytime you want.

Participant 4: What's a recording?

Participant 3: Well, anything that you say out loud can be recorded. Think of it like an echo.

AB: And so we realized all of a sudden, we had created a platform to attend to them as human beings. And that became the secret. Don't tell anybody.

(Both laugh)

AB: That became the power of the training that we were offering.

AG: I was still skeptical. I needed a clear picture of what empathy had to do with demand, control, support. There's actually evidence that empathy can contribute to burnout. When someone's in pain and you're unable to help, feeling their pain drains you. This is known to happen to physicians who get overwhelmed by empathy for patients. So I asked Adrienne why empathy has been so powerful.

AB: Well, let me give you an example, OK? Maybe that would help. Of a conversation that I might typically hear. This is the doctor talking. "We need to talk about quitting smoking. We talked about this last time and there hasn't been much progress."

Patient: "It's been really hard since my mom died."

Doctor: "Well, if you don't quit, you're going to have another heart attack and you're going to get that lung cancer you're worried about."

(Adam groans)

AB: How did that one feel for you? AG: Horrible.

AB: So the issue, though, is, if you dissect that with the clinician and you were to say, "OK, let's just pause that conversation for a second. Doctor, tell me what your intention was." And they'll say, "Well, I want the patient to quit smoking." "Yes, tell me why you want the patient to quit smoking." "Well, it's going to hurt their lungs and ..." "OK, why do you care whether it hurts their lungs?" "Well, they told me they don't want to die of lung cancer like their mom did." "OK, yes, but why do you care?" "Well, because I care about them." "OK, Doctor, let's start over."

(Both laugh)

AB: "Can you just try to say that?"

AG: Oh, Adrienne, I love that, because if you go back to the demand, control, support model, I think what I just heard is that by teaching physicians to express empathy, you're actually helping them gain a sense of control. That instead of having a stressful, frustrating patient interaction, instead of dealing with lots of complaints and also feeling like it's sort of out of their hands, whether the patient leaves feeling cared for and satisfied and helped. By expressing concern and doing that in a way that the patient hears it.

AB: I think you're spot-on. That is the magic. And you see the clinicians sort of go, "Oh."

(Laughs)

You're making it easier. You're literally teaching the clinician, or the doc, the words to use to express their intention of care. And they forget. I can't tell you how many times, over and over and over again, we saw them simply forget to say, "I care about you. I'm in this with you. We're going to figure this out together."

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AG: And there's the genius of Adrienne's approach. Empathy training eased burnout at the Cleveland Clinic, because it gave doctors that deeper sense of control. It enabled them to have the kinds of effective, caring conversations with patients that they wanted to have. You may not work in healthcare, but you know what it's like to feel that your tasks are spinning out of your control. And you can find small but meaningful ways to gain more control over your work, or to give that control to your employees.

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For an executive assistant, it might be some extra flexibility in hours. For a police officer, it could be having a say in which streets to patrol. For a retail associate, it might be a little discretion around which products to sell. But the demands of some jobs are so unpredictable that control is difficult to offer. That's when support becomes especially important.

(Fire crackling)

(Siren blares, indistinct radio communications)

Chris Macklin: Anytime you're taking care of men and women who call 911, or children, they're at their worst. And you're always supposed to be at your best.

AG: Chris Macklin was a paramedic in Denver, Colorado for 10 years. The demands of that job took a toll on him.

CM: I didn't know how to take care of myself, because I was so burned out and never wanted to work in that role again.

AG: He decided to leave that job and become a firefighter. But soon enough, Chris found that firefighting was also a quick road to emotional exhaustion. He couldn't control the calls that came in, or the tragedies that endured.

(Overlapping 911 calls)

CM: So everybody's gone. So open bay. Like, where you can see all the shoes left behind, you can tell that that's where the members jumped on the truck, when the truck got their call.

AG: One minute, he'd be playing cards in the firehouse. The next minute, the siren would go off and he'd be racing onto the truck. Soon, he'd be running into a burning building. He struggled to control how those demands affected him.

CM: You can imagine, if you're always under that kind of stress, you train your brain to be hyperaroused or hypervigilant all the time. And that just really leads to that anxiety. And I think that anxiety, that's that burnout.

AG: So rather than switching roles again, he decided to tackle the problem head-on. Chris is now the wellness manager at South Metro Fire Rescue in Denver, which is a huge organization. They have 29 stations, with more than 800 first responders. It's part of Chris's job to get emotional support to firefighters, which means changing the culture.

CM: Culture of the organization, I think, plays a huge role in burnout.

AG: In a recent study, firefighting units with cultures of care and support had fewer health problems and fewer accidents. But in too many fire departments, that care is missing, because people are afraid to seek support. At South Metro, like in many emergency-response organizations, people felt like they were supposed to be tough. Chris experienced that lack of support firsthand 20 years ago, in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting, where he was a first responder.

CM: The old science was make you go to a debriefing with people you didn't know, allowing visitors in the room, and then, really, people asking you questions and wanting you to tell your whole story right there on the spot. And that was a horrible experience for me. And what happened was I left the debriefing angry, upset.

AG: This old support model brought in professional counselors, who often lacked personal experience with what first responders went through. Research suggested analyzing the incident right away with a counselor often doesn't help and can backfire. What people actually need is emotional support from someone who can empathize with their experience, especially since there's often a stigma associated with asking for help.

CM: We also wanted to normalize that, that everyone's reaction is normal, based on their own personal circumstances and where they come from. I think it's helping us move our culture to a positive place and maybe lower some of that burnout.

AG: South Metro created a peer-support program for workers and their families. After a difficult call, like a big fire or a mass shooting, first responders can opt in to what they call "defuse sessions." That's defuse as in defusing a bomb. The first defusing session Chris did was for a crew that just responded to an emergency call involving an infant. You could see how much more helpful it was than the old debriefing model.

CM: I just asked them what they needed. And so, a couple just wanted to remain out of service. They wanted to call their wives, but they all wanted to stay at work, because that was that cohesive unit and where their support network was. But the ambulance crew asked if they could just go to sleep. That speaks to the culture of the organization in recognizing the stresses of the job.

AG: The stresses firefighters endure on the job are probably a lot more extreme than most workplaces. But the steps Chris and his colleagues took to support their staff still teach us a lot about what all kinds of organizations can do. If you do client service or customer care, you want someone on your team whose job it is to care for the caregivers. If you do knowledge work, you need someone in the organization to track who's getting bombarded with requests, so they can get backup on their team.

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Formal support helps to prevent burnout, but ultimately, the culture of informal support matters just as much, if not more, and organizations can take steps to nurture it. At South Metro Station 45, people know where to go for unconditional support. It's probably the busiest place in the station, says firefighter Dan Rivers. Dan Rivers: It's the only place in the world where you can have a stack of money, 100s, 50, whatever, a stack of money, gold bars — nobody will touch it. But if you have creamer, cookies, cake ... So yeah, the kitchen table's like your house, it's a dropping zone, everybody comes in, just drops their stuff, whether it's mentally or emotionally or just stuff, you know? Yeah, this is the nerve center right here.

AG: Dan and his crewmates are just back from a call at a residential building nearby. With their suits halfway on and radios strapped to their chest, they sit around the heart of the station, an old wooden kitchen table.

DR: It's got a lot of miles on it, like a lot of us do.

AG: That table is a natural place for support, to share good experiences but also bad memories. Of course, the tone is set at the top. One of the key moments at South Metro was at a meeting with over 800 firefighters and paramedics. Several of them stood up to share their struggles. Chris says it started when the fire chief publicly stated his commitment to supporting first responders throughout the organization.

CM: And our fire chief and operations chief both told all of those men and women that if they raise their hand, they will be taken care of and will never lose their job. And so that was a superpowerful moment for us as an organization. And if you feel safe, if you know that your organization is standing behind you, you can really weather more and perform better.

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AG: Whether or not you're fighting fires, your job can leave you feeling burned out. Reducing the demands, gaining control and finding support shouldn't be up to you alone, because burnout's not an epidemic that's afflicting one generation. It's an organizational problem that can affect any generation.

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If you feel exhausted and your workplace isn't doing enough to help, you can help yourself, at least a little, by reflecting on why you're in this job to begin with.

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What does it mean to you and to the people around you?

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It's only a starting point, but it can make a difference to remember how your work makes a difference.

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Next week on WorkLife.

Grace Song: I was the lowest-paid employee in my department of 250 people, even though I was the highest-rated performer within my band levels. And it was because I never asked.

AG: Negotiation is an art. But there's a science to help you get the results you want without hurting your reputation.

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WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O'Donnell, Jessica Glazer, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Angela Chang and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Studios.

Special thanks to our sponsors, Accenture, BetterUp, Hilton and SAP.

For their research, thanks to Christina Maslach on burnout, Teresa Amabile on progress, Karl Weick on small wins, Sabine Sonnentag on helping others, Wilmar Schaufeli and Arnold Bakker on burnout contagion, Robert Karasek and colleagues, and Margot van der Doef and Stan Maes on demand, control, support, Mandy O'Neill and Nancy Rothbard on cultures of care, and Jonathon Halbesleben and colleagues on firefighter burnout.

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AHP: Millennials are, in a way, incredibly physically mobile. You have people who are moving away from their support systems. When you're not around your parents, you don't have that support system.

AG: Some of my students have moved away from their parents to escape burnout, but that is another conversation. (Laughs)

AHP: That is another conversation. (Laughs)