Many of my clients, especially those in the tech industry, come to me as a result of work burnout. Work related anxiety, depression, procrastination, and imposter syndrome, are some of the common signs I see related to burnout. Some clients come to me with a clear sense of the cause of their struggle but can't understand how it could be affecting them so profoundly. Others are confused, thinking work couldn't possibly be the cause of their problem because their situation isn't significantly different from that of their coworkers and has been normalized. In helping clients determine whether what they are experiencing is burnout, I educate them around the difference between working conditions that, objectively, almost always lead to burnout for anyone, and other, less obvious factors, that represent subjective, mismatches between employees and aspects of their job.
A comprehensive research article on the topic of burnout dating back to 1999 by Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach identifies what they see as, the the six most common contributing factors to burnout, many of which come as no surprise. However, having them clearly laid out and delineated makes for a more comprehensive understanding of what leads to burnout in addition to how, and to what extent, it not only negatively impacts one's work, but other aspects of one's life as well. Below, I've summarized the article for the sake of brevity and have included the original paper at the conclusion.
Work burnout is characterized by low energy, low involvement, and low efficacy. It's caused by chronic mismatches between employees and their work setting in some or all of the following six areas of work-life; workload, control, rewards, community, fairness, and value.
Workload: An increased workload can lead to burnout because it often results in emotional exhaustion. Workload demands in office settings may not allow employees enough time to meet or exceed their own, or their employers, standards, allow for enough recovery time, and may erode the distinction between personal life and work.
Jobs with high levels of emotional involvement and distressing exchanges that resonate well after the work day, such as in human services, can also lead to burnout in the form of emotional exhaustion and also blur the line between personal life and work. Insufficient organizational support systems and and the emotional requirements of staff members represents and pervasive mismatch throughout the human service sector but this type of emotional involvement is prevalent in other fields as well.
In the service industry, emotional exhaustion often occurs because employees are required to display emotions inconsistent with their feelings. However, "emotional management" can apply to any work setting and often represents a mismatch of work and expectation. This happens when the work does not lend itself to the emotional displays demanded or expected by employers and/or when the expected emotions are inauthentic to the employee, requiring an expenditure of energy that could otherwise be used in service to their core job.
Control: An employees ability to have a sense of agency and control over their work can be affected by role conflict. One type of role conflict leaves employees with insufficient control over their work because of multiple authorities managing the work, each having conflicting demands, and/or incongruent values. Role conflict can also be defined as a mismatch between the employee, the nature of their work, including the prescribed process by which the work is to be accomplished. Studies have shown that lack of control due to role conflict leads to greater levels of exhaustion and burnout than does role ambiguity, in which an employees work is poorly defined.
Reward: Mismatch in reward is also associated with burnout. Insufficient reward, whether financial, institutional, or social, increases employee vulnerability to burnout. Recognition through monetary, institutional, and social rewards is associated with personal accomplishment and professional efficacy. Employees deprived of of recognition feel under-rewarded which can lead to feelings that the organization undervalues their employees. This perceived value mismatch may contribute to cynicism and burnout.
In contrast, "equity theory" is applied to employees who feel over-rewarded. They believe they work less than their colleagues but are given similar rewards which can cause them to feel additional strain and pressure. Equity theory can also come into play in situations where an employee receives a promotion or a raise. In both cases, in an effort to justify their perception of being over-rewarded, these employees may reinterpret their workload in a more demanding light and/or place more emphasis on conflict with the organizations values. The focus on additional demands as well and conflict can lead to exhaustion.
Community: Community refers to social support from supervisors, coworkers, and family members. People use social support to cope with demands. Not surprisingly, with sufficient support, additional demands are less likely to result in burnout.
The overall quality of personal interactions among people in an organization also has an impact on burnout. A lively, attentive, responsive, community is incompatible with burnout and employees in work cultures which foster this, can often handle additional demands.
Supervisor support is closely tied to whether or not employees experience exhaustion because of a supervisors direct impact on workload. Coworker support is closely related to accomplishment and efficacy, reflecting the value staff members place on peer evaluation.
Fairness: Fairness is a quality of supervisor support. Fair decisions are those that give due consideration to the diverse conditions of employees. Resources and opportunities are allocated with respect to organizational objectives, not with respect to the personal advantages of privileged individuals or cliques.
In regard to process, a fair decision is one in which people have an opportunity to present their arguments and in which they feel treated with respect and politeness. Employees are concerned with much more than the favorableness of the outcomes of a judgment. Their sense of place in the work community is based on their assessment of the decision making process itself, including their treatment. Unfair, cursory, or disrespectful decision making alienates employees from their community.
Research confirms that if employees perceive supervisors as being both fair and supportive, this contributes to their acceptance of major organization change and reduces susceptibility to burnout. Employees consider fairness to be indicative of genuine concern for the long-term good of employees during difficult times.
Values: Values encompass the ideas and motivations that originally attract employees to an organization. These transcend the utilitarian exchange of time for money or advancement. Value congruence is an alignment between what is critically important to the employee and the priorities and expectations of the organization. A mismatch in values can dramatically disrupt the relationship between and employee and their work, primarily by stripping work of its meaning. (I would also add that a misalignment of values can also cause employee distress if their work requires them to compromise their personal integrity.)
When work requires the full engagement of an employee, the magnitude of commitment requires extra consideration around value alignment. When employee and organization values overlap, work furthers both parties. The employee finds meaning in their work and is able to leverage personal impact. This means that employees are able to pursue what is critically important to them and develop projects of considerable scope, backed by company resources and reputation. In this way, they are able to accomplish much more of what they find personally important than they could on their own.
When there is a value mismatch between an employee and organization, the employee finds themselves making tradeoffs between work they want to do and work they have to do. Work can become personally irrelevant if it doesn't further personal objectives even in the face of increased scope and expertise. Value mismatch can also undermine employee confidence that their efforts are making an important contribution. In addition, insufficient opportunity to pursue personal values through work can cause employees to overextend themselves in other areas of their life to find meaning, leading to exhaustion.
Burnout as a result of value mismatch often occurs in the initial phase of career development if employees have idealistic or unrealistic expectations about the organization that don't align with the realities of the work. The ensuing buildup of tension leads to burnout unless the employee either adjusts their expectations to align with actual experience or leaves the organization for a more fulfilling opportunity.
Value alignment between employee and employer is critical to the employee finding their work meaningful. When values don't align, employees can find their work personally irrelevant, their contributions lacking in importance, and may be forced to find meaning outside of work. Meaningless work is directly related to the three main characteristics defining burnout; low energy, low involvement, and low efficacy.
Conclusion: Burnout is not simply the result of some quality of an organization. Burnout is the result of the relationship between an employee and the organization. The solution to burnout is not about engineering the perfect organizational environment. Appropriate intervention involves a goal toward supporting a lively, well-established communication processes in which the organization and its employees work to address and develop balances in the six key areas of work-life that most impact burnout.
I hope this synopsis helps identify, explain, and attach language to the experience of burnout for those who may be struggling with the symptoms but lack the clarity to fully understand their situation.