Interestingly, burnout isn’t caused by too much work: it’s caused by the poor management of it
To understand why people burn out, we need to take a step back and look at human emotions in general. Burnout is a special kind of negative emotion. So the question, really, is why do people feel any kind of negative emotion at all?
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Evolutionary psychology tells us that emotions evolved to help us pursue our goals. When we sense opportunity, we experience desire or excitement in anticipation of that opportunity, and pleasure or joy (or disappointment) once the opportunity materialised into a win or a loss. When we sense threat, we experience fear or anxiety in anticipation of the threat and pain or sadness (or relief) once the threat has materialised into a loss or a narrow escape. Boredom and frustration help us abandon unfruitful pursuits and give us the curiosity to explore new pastures. Anxiety keeps us safe, and low mood helps us yield dangerous status competitions, downplay our talents to jealous superiors, conserve energy in times of illness or give up an unreachable goal. Mood depends less on success or failure and more on progress towards goals.
And expectations matter, too. Runner’s high might be an example of how an anticipated pain that never materialises can create euphoria. It’s only when our emotional responses are "excessive, deficient, too quick, too slow, too enduring, or in response to the wrong cues", according to evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse, that we feel something is amiss.
Emotions tell us whether or not we're making meaningful progress towards valued goals.
The other piece of theory necessary to understand burnout is the theory about goals themselves.
What are goals? Humans are goal-oriented creatures. We think and act in pursuit of things we want. It's been said that the very definition of intelligence is the ability to pursue goals in the face of unpredictable obstacles. Goals are the things we want.
One strange fact about goals is that they have nothing to do with our intelligence. IQ — or the brain's computational capacity — tells us how to solve problems, not what problems are worth solving to begin with. You can't reason yourself into wanting one thing over another: a hut in the woods instead of an executive position, for instance. Instead, goals are set by our emotions. And emotions are set by our biological and cultural heritage. Through our emotions we strive for — according to the great 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow — food, shelter, sex, safety, esteem, belonging, love, and self-actualisation.
This brings us to the fact that not all goals were created equal. Some goals are better than others. Bad goals are bad because they either fail to meet our primary needs (think about that time you bought a chocolate doughnut when what you really needed was a hug); because they don't work for us in the long run (this covers pretty much anything involving habitual drug use, drinking, overspending, gambling, and other unsustainable behaviour); or because they don't work for other people (examples of which are the goals of workaholics and adulterers).
Another category of bad goals are goals that are out of alignment with our basic personality traits: wanting to become the class clown when you're an introvert, or trying to get ahead in a cut-throat industry when you're highly agreeable. Personality traits are strongly genetically determined and, while the genes don't condemn us to a specific point on the spectrum (more of an interval), still: the average natural-born neurotic is never going to thrive as an politician whose literal job description is to get lots of people to like her.
Finally, bad goals are out of alignment with our overarching life story. Humans are storytelling creatures and all of us go through life by weaving a narrative of the character we think we are within our particular life story. This is inevitable: our brains are wired for meaning, we experience the whole of our phenomenological reality from a first person vantage point, and time is experienced as linear. A life story is as natural for human brains as having three hearts and blue blood is natural for octopuses.
For this reason, it's important that all of us educate our emotions to strive towards good rather than bad goals (the same way that we educate our taste buds to crave broccoli from time to time and not just chocolate).
Good goals are those that meet our primary needs, are sustainable in the long run, work for other people, align with our basic personality traits, and fit in with our overarching life story.
When we consistently aren't making progress towards the right goals, it's hard not to feel defeated. The whole game starts to feel unwinnable. It feels like trying to score in football when your shoelaces are tied together. That's when the fatigue, negativity and ineffectiveness become understandable, even rational. They are unconscious reactions to a deeply irrational situation with no end in sight.
This is the key thing that differentiates burnout from regular exhaustion: everything feels unwinnable. With regular exhaustion, this isn't the case, as the psychoanalyst (and burnout specialist) Josh Cohen puts it: "run a marathon, paint your living room, catalogue your collection of tea caddies, and the tiredness you experience will be infused with a deep satisfaction and faintly haloed in smugness. The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety which cannot be silenced."
When it comes to the question of timeframes, the World Health Organisation's official definition describes burnout as resulting from "chronic" negative emotions and associated symptoms. Most medical bodies agree that the word 'chronic' refers to something that lasts for more than three months.
This leads us to a more specific and actionable definition of what causes burnout:
Burnout happens when we don't make meaningful progress towards valued goals for at least three months, and so the whole game starts to feel unwinnable.
Burnout is a signal to the conscious mind that our progress towards a valued (but often unconscious) goal is not going well. Here are are six common scenarios that show how people can get stuck in pursuit of their goals.
The game makes people chase genuinely unreachable goals.
Maybe Tom burned out because his workload was simply unachievable, for too long, or he didn't have the skills required to do the work. If Tom spent the last three months feeling like he's on a speeding treadmill where the only reward for finishing his work is more work, his burnout is no surprise.Maybe Tom burned out because his workload was simply unachievable, for too long, or he didn't have the skills required to do the work. If Tom spent the last three months feeling like he's on a speeding treadmill where the only reward for finishing his work is more work, his burnout is no surprise. Sometimes, the goals are unreachable not because of the objective workload required by the job, but because of unrealistically high self-expectations internalised by Tom from the pressures of family, peers and life in an aggressively individualistic economy.
The game has too much randomness.
In this scenario, Tom feels like reaching his goals is a bit of a gamble: there's no clear link between how much effort he puts in and how much success he's met with. One week he spends four days on a presentation that gets canned at the last minute (so lots of effort is met with zero reward), the next week he gets praised before the whole company for a job that took him ten minutes to complete (zero effort leads to lots of praise). No wonder Tom feels no incentive to put in the work: effort does not always equal success. When there's too much randomness in a game, experiments on animals have shown, we quickly give up: it's a phenomenon known as 'learned helplessness'.
The game doesn't provide enough emotional payoff.
Tom feels, and the psychologist Daniel Pink would wholly agree, that there are basically three things that make work worth doing: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. That is, Tom wants to be in charge of his own work, he wants to be good at it, and he wants the work to matter in the bigger scheme of the company's mission. Whether Tom is conscious or not of these feelings, his desire for these three things will guide his actions, and if he never gets any of them — if he is micromanaged, if his skills don't improve, and if his work feels pointless — he will burn out.
The game is rigged.
Financial rewards and workload are unfairly distributed, bosses reward work that people haven't done themselves, promotions and evaluations feel biased in Tom's view, or there's a feeling that the culture is toxic and unsupportive. Christina Maslach, a social psychologist, explains how it's the organisation's intent towards fairness that matters more than actual fairness.
The game comes with too many mixed messages.
Tom is told that good work is praised and recognised at the company, but after doing a great piece of work his manager then starts to feel threatened and his colleagues become jealous and bitter. Tom is told that it's great to have original ideas, but it turns out there's a zero-risk culture and original ideas (when vocalised) come with the risk of being shot down and embarrassed in front of others. Tom is told it's important to work collaboratively, but people get frustrated when he interrupts them asking to discuss a project. Like when dating someone who says constantly one thing but does another, these mixed messages make it near-impossible to fully engage with a job and an organisation.
The game makes people chase bad goals.
Perhaps you want to get along well with others — determined in part by a high agreeableness trait — but the current job requires giving a lot of difficult feedback. Perhaps you value being up-front and direct, but the current job requires you to play your cards close to your chest. Perhaps your life story is about making a big difference to a few people's lives, but the job you're in is about making a tiny difference to a great many.
Identifying with one or two of these six isn't unexpected. No job is 100% perfect, and if most of the fundamentals are in place, and it feels like progress is being made in a job, then people are capable of putting up with a lot. It's when a few of these reasons come at the same time that the game is most at risk of tipping over into full-blown un-winnable territory.
In order to narrow down to which causes appear to be the biggest drivers of an instance of burnout, set up a one-to-one with the employee in question (Tom), get them to go through this tool (the version below gives you an idea of how it works, followed by a PDF version to download for your employee), and then discuss their answers.
Workload is too much to handle
Goalposts for success keep moving
Not enough autonomy
Don't feel like I'm mastering new skills
Rewards + workload feel unevenly distributed
Toxic + unsupportive work culture
Contrast between what my manager says + how it is
Contrast between what the company says + how it is
Requirements of the job don't fit with my personality + strengths
Requirements of the job don't fit with my values + dreams
Download a PDF version here