Burned Out & Burned Up
We use the term “burnout” to talk about many aspects of our lives, but it’s really an occupational phenomenon. When we’re thinking about how burnout might be impacting us, we can learn a lot by looking at how we feel about our jobs.
When we’re burned out:
- We feel exhausted. There’s too much to do, too little time to do it, and this kind of time crunch happens too often.
- We feel cynical. We’re removed from, or indifferent to, the work we do. We slide by with the minimum effort required, no longer trying to give our best.
- We feel inefficient. We experience little satisfaction with what we’ve accomplished in the past or with what we’re doing now. The things we do don’t really feel like they’re making any difference, and we don’t have any way to change that.
Burnout doesn’t suddenly flare up after a rough week. It’s what happens in response to prolonged, chronic work stressors. It’s less of a problem that any one individual has, and more of a sign that there is something broken with the system in which they work.
There are at least 6 sources of burnout:
- An unsustainable workload. This is what we most often think of as the primary cause of burnout. There is simply not enough time, energy, or other resources available to get the job done right. It can be worsened when someone has different skills from the ones they need to do their job. Unfortunately, this mismatch is happening more frequently during the pandemic. People are leaving jobs, then others must shift into those positions, oftentimes without the skills or experience they need to perform well.
While an unsustainable workload is a significant driver of burnout, it’s certainly not the only one. We also need to consider:
- A perceived lack of control. When a person has very little autonomy with few opportunities to make improvements, or when they lack clarity as to what their role is, what tasks they should be doing, or how to do them, this feeds the fires of burnout.
- Rewards and recognition that feel like a mismatch. This is when the “pay-off” for effort is ill-suited to either the individual, the particular situation, or the organization. It can be insufficient pay, but it can also happen when supervisors or coworkers don’t acknowledge someone’s efforts.
- A lack of supportive community in the workplace. Do interactions with co-workers, supervisors, employees, and customers feel toxic or uplifting? Work loneliness is also linked to work exhaustion, and can eventually lead to burnout.
- A lack of fairness. This is a work environment that feels full of disrespect, is emotionally treacherous, or when different people get to “play” by a different set of rules.
- Divergent values. This would be when someone’s values run counter to what the organization holds as important. It can also be when the work they do has little real meaning for them, or they feel like they’re not contributing to the world in a way that matters to them personally.
Once the drivers of burnout have been identified, they can be transformed. With intention, effort, and resources, it’s possible to create workplaces that fire people up, instead of jobs that burn people out.