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Burnout At Work: Causes and Impact

Recognizing the symptoms of burnout is only the first step. Understanding the causes of burnout is the next step toward recovery. There are typically three main driving factors of burnout.

The first, job demand, might be the most important. Think of it as anything that is just too much while you’re at work: work overload, time pressure, and role ambiguity.

Another main driver of job burnout is psychological contract breach. For example, during the pandemic, a lot of retail and restaurant workers experienced burnout. Why? They had a psychological contract of “I signed up to serve people and get tips, I didn’t sign up to get sick.” They felt that their job situation did not align with promises made. When employees experience a work situation that doesn’t present opportunities for growth, workload, balance, and flexibility- this psychological contract breach is a trigger for employee burnout.

There are also some individual characteristics that are related to burnout. People with lower emotional stability tend to experience burnout more strongly. Type A personalities–those go-getters who have a strong need for control experience increased burnout. When people believe strongly in external locus of control, an opinion that external factors impact their life more than their own actions, they experience more stressors and a higher level of burnout.

What happens when people experience burnout?

There’s plenty of research out there suggesting that the physiological symptoms are equivalent to clinical depression or clinical anxiety. Ignoring these symptoms can be dangerous to physical health. People need to evaluate how they feel on the burnout scale, and even if they are a 3 out of 10, they need to think through solving the problem before it gets really bad. A higher level of burnout may require a clinical solution.

Burnout takes a large toll on work performance. People experiencing work burnout can struggle with:

  • Absenteeism
  • Turnover 
  • Productivity
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Low Organizational Commitment
  • Spillover to Work Team (Burnout can become a contagious mindset that can spread to the team).
  • Spillover At Home (Burnout can extend to family members and disrupt your work-life balance)

It’s important that people are proactive as they recognize the signs of burnout, taking the approach of “what am I going to do about it…how do I solve this problem”. If you’re seeing some of these signs in yourself or feel there is a risk of burnout in you, don’t hesitate to attend to your well-being and mental health through the proper self-care.

Click here to read Part 3: Recovering From Burnout- 5 Stages Of Recovery

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Dr. Scott Dust

Scott Dust, Ph.D. is the Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf, an HR-tech platform that facilitates coaching for everyone. Dr. Dust is also a Raymond E. Glos Associate Professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University. His research focuses on leadership and teams and has been published in over 30 peer-reviewed academic journals. Dr. Dust is also on the editorial review board of three journals, including the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Group and Organization Management, and the Journal of Social Psychology. He is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has a blog column at Psychology Today.