The Causes of Burnout

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In the post Understanding the Symptoms of Burnout we established that burnout is a workplace issue. What are the conditions in the workplace that can create burnout amongst employees? Burnout researchers have identified six primary causes of burnout.

The Six Causes of Burnout

Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter in The Truth About Burnout describe 6 common factors that cause burnout:

  • Work overload
  • Lack of control
  • Insufficient reward
  • Breakdown in community
  • Absence of fairness
  • Conflicting values

Work Overload

You hear it all the time. “I have too much to do at work.” But there’s a difference between a busy day at work and an unrelenting amount of work that cannot be accomplished. Workloads have been increasing over the past decade as more companies are putting economic values over the value of their employees. Companies want to see productivity. Starting in 2020, with the start of the pandemic, work overload went into overdrive (literally) overnight.

First, work became more intense. The new norm became “business-as-usual” but online, which has led to endless hours of virtual meetings with little time for “deep work.” (Cal Newport)

Next, that work intensity means longer days. For remote workers, those long days of meetings were followed by long evenings or weekends of catching up without proper rest.

Work has become more complex. We’ve had to learn new virtual tools and think about new ways to do things we used to do in the office. But as simpler tasks have been offloaded to automation (or just outsourced), the work left to many remote workers is knowledge-based or creative and requires quiet time to perform.

Finally, work has become exhausting. When we do find time to perform tasks that require our full attention, we are pulled in many different directions as remote workers. Mobile devices, the constant ding of our email inbox or the family asking for our time. These distractions zap our energy and leave us feeling exhausted and possibly ill, as well.

Lack of Control

Whether having little control over tasks or decision making or just being micro-managed, lacking control takes a toll on employees’ motivation. Employees want to be able to apply their knowledge and expertise to their work. When their approaches are questioned or not even permitted, employees feel helpless and devalued.

Insufficient Rewards

This cause is in part about insufficient pay and promotions but in more recent years intangible rewards, such as feeling a sense of purpose and job security, have taken a hit. When organizations reduce rewards, employees feel less positive about the work.

Breakdown of Community

Jennifer Moss in The Burnout Epidemic refers to this as “poor relationships.” Breakdown of work communities occurs when employees see leadership that does not value employees Eventually employees begin to avoid creating relationships with colleagues. This is often seen in work environments where there is a steady stream of contract or short-term employees to perform work alongside full-time employees. The contract staff is seen as disposable as work ebbs and flows, creating a feeling of sense of distrust and insecurity among the employees.

Absence of Fairness

Lack of fairness can include bias, favoritism, mistreatment, disrespectful behaviors and unfair policies. When employees believe they are not being treated fairly or that they witness a group not being treated fairly, they believe that they do not work in a safe environment and will mistrust those in charge.

Conflicting Values

Perhaps what drew you to your company was its values. (Check out my post on Why a Future Employer’s Values Should Matter to Your Job Search) Those values motivate you to contribute your best. Now, imagine that there’s a leadership or economic change and now suddenly, the organization is making decisions that don’t match your values. This could be a minor annoyance for some but for others, especially employees who are committed to the outcomes of their organization, this can be too much.

Each of these causes of burnout represents a gap between the employee and the organization which creates a recurring friction which wears away an employee’s energy and motivation. In the next post, we’ll look at what organizational leaders can do to decrease these friction points.

Published by Susan Moore

Co-chair Charlotte Carolina Club - Carolina Club Ambassador - Former Chair Jacksonville (FL) Carolina Club - Former Carolina Alumni Admissions Program representative

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