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?
How emotions work
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.
Good vs. bad 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.
Six causes of burnout
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.
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.
Burnout causes tool
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