Burnout: What it is and Why it Happens

Burnout Defined:

A state of emotional and physical exhaustion, coupled with cynicism against any hope of positive change.


The Six Factors that Cause Burnout in the Workplace

Researchers have found six factors which cause (not just correlate with) burnout.

  1. Workload: when job demands exceed human limitations, you get burnout

  2. Control: when you lack the ability to influence decisions relating to your work and exercise personal autonomy, you get burnout.

  3. Reward: when the monetary, social and intrinsic reinforcements to shape behavior in the workplace are not consistent with your expectations, you get burnout.

  4. Community: when you have a weak informal support networks, the presence of persistent interpersonal conflict, and the organization's inability to work as team, you get burnout.

  5. Fairness: when the decisions and resource allocation are not perceived as fair as equitable, you get burnout.

  6. Values: when you're out of alignment with the ideals and motivations of the organization, you get burnout.

Of these six, 1) workload, and 6) values, are the most critical. Drowning in work and/or being misaligned with the values of the organization are the most key determining factors in causing burnout.


Think of " engagement" and "burnout" on opposite ends of a spectrum. So of course, the recipe for engagement is simply the opposite of these elements that cause burnout.


How Burnout Develops


It's a downward spiral with three stages:

  1. Emotional exhaustion sets in when the the workload is overloading, there's a lack of control for how, when, and where the work required and there's little community to provide support.

  2. A prolonged state of emotional exhaustion breeds cynicism, the hopeless feeling that what you're experiencing is pervasive (occurring everywhere) and permanent (occurring always)

  3. Once the seeds of emotional exhaustion have sprouted into cynicism, the fruit you'll reap is professional inefficacy. Tasks and relationships will begin to break down, you'll be at work in body only, and the quality of your broader life will degrade significantly.

Burnout is costly, both for the individual affected and the organization they serve. Using this framework, can you identify how vulnerable you are to experiencing burnout? How about your team? What are you going to do about it?

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