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It's Not You. Burnout is Caused by the Workplace

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Sometimes “burnout” is used like a buzzword or a description for a moment in time. Such as, “I am burned out! Work was rough.” It refers to stress and fatigue, but also some apathy. By the end of the week, there is little interest or enthusiasm for work. What often helps is a weekend of shutting down, spending time with family and friends, or doing some much needed errands and tidying up. We feel refreshed enough for another week.

But then, there is the burnout that is not a buzzword. It refers to how a person feels after persistently working long hours with unrealistic expectations, both self-imposed and demanded by the job. Often within this are inefficiencies, unfair treatment, disrespectful behavior, isolation or loneliness, and an absence of leadership support. It is feeling an extreme lack of control over work and the ability to contribute effectively. Relationships suffer, both for the burned out person and for their family and friends.

Burnout greatly compromises mental, emotional, and physical health. The consequences (if not addressed) are significant: exhaustion, sadness, insomnia, anger, and extreme cynicism. Also included is heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or general vulnerability to illness. Tragically, suicide is also a risk, especially amongst physicians who experience twice the rate of suicide from burnout than the general population.

This burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a workplace phenomenon or experience. Take special note, this is not a problem of stressed-out individuals making poor choices that yoga classes and other various types of self-care can correct. This is a job problem.

Burnout is misery caused by the workplace.

If you have experienced burnout and felt an inner rage when someone has told you to just get more sleep, take breaks, and meditate, you are well justified in this frustration. The reasons for burnout are largely institutional and not within the immediate control of individual leaders and employees. There are some actions that can be taken to relieve symptoms of burnout, but that will not correct the issue at an organizational level.

Some industries are worse off than others. As Jennifer Moss writes for Harvard Business Review, “Mission-focused executives, non-profit employees, teachers/principals, nurses, and physicians are some of the people most at-risk for burnout.” These are purpose-driven fields where people not only love the work but feel personally connected to and passionate about it.

Though, burnout can be felt across all industries. Gallop reported that 76% of employees experience burnout at least sometimes and 28% say they are burned out “very often” or “always”. Gallop found the top five reasons for burnout were:

  1. Unfair treatment at work

  2. Unmanageable workloads

  3. Unclear communication from managers

  4. Lack of manager support

  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Other reasons reported by the Mayo Clinic include dysfunctional workplace dynamics, unclear job expectations, and lack of social support or isolation.

Again, take note, none of these reasons reflect poor personal choice or poor employee performance. Rather, the reasons reflect workplace culture, operations, and leadership.

While managers often have the most influence on whether employees or teams experience burnout, they’re not solely at fault. Many organizations lack proper leadership training to provide managers with the skills to appropriately support their staff.

For example, empathetic leadership is a common need to mitigate or prevent burnout. This means burned out employees need leaders to actively listen to them, set aside personal opinions, biases, and privilege, and then know what action is appropriate to take considering what they have learned from staff. Employees must genuinely feel cared for and understood by their bosses.

These are learned skills, not inherent traits. This means if a leader isn’t trained on these skills, they at minimum must learn them through observation of others or experiencing it themselves (to replicate the behaviors for others). If an organization has a “whatever it takes” or “no pain, no gain” culture, then empathetic communication is largely absent.

Moreover, leaders often experience just as much burnout as their direct reports, feeling powerless to the work environment. How do they change a “do more with less” culture? They don’t. They can’t.

Organizations commonly respond to burnout by offering employees various self-care programs intended to increase resiliency and well-being. This looks like mental health services, wellness and exercise programs, retail discounts, grocery services, and childcare benefits. To be sure, these activities are valuable and do provide short-term relief, but they will not correct burnout in the long-term.

For example, Gallop reported, unreasonable time pressure is a contributor to burnout. If leaders continue to say yes to more projects and responsibilities without providing support and resources, no number of “Free Lunch Fridays”, gift cards, or “mental health days” will help. If anything, employees will resist taking time away from work for fear of falling further behind.

The irony of it all is that organizations build cultures like this under the guise of performance, profits, and results. More work, more hours, more stress somehow means success. But the evidence doesn’t support it. The American Psychological Association reports (not surprisingly) that high stress environments enjoy increased turnover, lower productivity, and higher healthcare costs.

Burnout is a pervasive workplace problem.

If you are experiencing it, get support and know that it’s not about you, it’s about the workplace. Focus on what is within your control and seek out someone to support you in developing and practicing strategies to provide relief. You have likely been trying to manage all the stress on your own. Burnout calls for reinforcements. Mentors, therapists, faith leaders, and coaches are all excellent support people to help you find some relief through new behaviors and shifts in mindset.

Finally, know that you probably can’t change the culture in your workplace. If you work for an organization or a boss that accepts and perpetuates this type of environment, then it might be time to change where you work.

Worth more than any job is your health and your life.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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