Psychological Science at Work


The indispensable research blog on the science of the modern workplace, covering everything from leadership and management to the behavioral, social, and cognitive dynamics behind performance and achievement.


Burnout Comes in Three Varieties

As of this month, more than 10 million people in the United States are unemployed, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Given that there are so many people looking for jobs, it’s curious that a large percentage of American workers want nothing more than to quit. As of this past December, 1.7% of all employed people left their jobs. That rate has been climbing — albeit slowly — since 2009.

“Burnout syndrome” — that is, the fatigue, cynicism, and professional inefficacy that comes with work-related stress — may play a significant role in this trend.

Some level of stress is an inevitable part of every work experience. But at what point do those stressors become overbearing? What combination of factors makes one individual quit and another endure?

New research suggests that there are at least three different subtypes of burnout, and they each relate to specific detrimental coping strategies. By administering a survey to 429 university workers of various occupations, researchers were able to gather data on the subtypes of burnout and correlate those with employees’ coping strategies.

Overall, the results indicated that overload burnout — the frenetic employee who works toward success until exhaustion — is most closely related to emotional venting. These individuals might try to cope with their stress by complaining about the organizational hierarchy at work, feeling as though it imposes limits on their goals and ambitions. That coping strategy, unsurprisingly, seems to lead to a stress overload and a tendency to throw in the towel.

Burnout that stems from boredom and lack of personal development, on the other hand, is most closely associated with an avoidance coping strategy. These under-challenged workers tend to manage stress by distancing themselves from work, a strategy that leads to depersonalization and cynicism — a harbinger for burning out and packing up shop.

The final type of burnout — the worn-out subtype — seems to stem from a coping strategy based on giving up in the face of stress. Even though these individuals want to achieve a certain goal, they lack the motivation to plow through barriers to get to it.

Because it’s possible to identify the ineffective coping strategies associated with each type of burnout, it may also be possible to develop targeted and preventative therapies, according to the research article published in PLOS ONE.

Treatments that include emotion regulation, increased cognitive flexibility, and mindfulness may help ward off burnout in susceptible individuals, suggests the research team led by Jesus Montero Marin of the University of Zaragoza in Spain. Organizations that want to keep their employees happy and productive may begin to invest in the fight against burnout by helping employees find accessible, affordable therapies for coping with stress. As some companies know all too well, high turnover can stall progress — especially if the burnout wildfire spreads.

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.

Comments

Lol, psych academics need to widen their perspective:
Of course it is the workers who are at fault, they need only quit complaining and get some therapy, or some meds. (Sarcasm).

The researchers should consider the ultimate causes of burnout, not devise therapeutic regimes to help them cope a little longer.

Alternative solutions are to focus on understanding the cause of poor management (for instance a prevalence of sociopathic individuals in positions of authority), to attempt to illuminate methods to improve the quality of management, to plan projects with attention to real-world goals, estimate levels of effort and risks, reduce exploitive and manipulative practices, and provide greater levels of job-specific training relating to the project in hand. Naaaaaah!

Thanks for the great read. I’d love to see a link to the article on PLOS ONE!

Stan, has a good point, you are possibly looking at the symptoms not the source.

That side both sides of the equation need to be understood e.g. the environment as well as the person. The impact of leadership, the EQ of the leadership, organization culture, vacation package, training, on boarding all could have an impact and drive to burnout, regardless of the personality.

Hi Stan – some of us psych academics are investigating the causes of burnout, and it turns out that these can be quite complex as well, since different people find different workplace experiences stressful to different degrees. Interestingly, a lot of these causes, which can stem from poor management, can be attenuated by the same factors that help workers cope – since managers are also people and can experience burnout too, often with the effects trickling “down” to subordinates…causing the sort of burnout wildfire described above. although I agree with you that we should focus on preventing burnout in workers, not all research can focus on all factors; just because research focuses on coping doesn’t necessarily imply blame to the workers – would you toss in the garbage the entire field of positive psychology? All the research is important in uncovering a dynamic and complete model that will help to fix the problem of our current naïveté on the topic. Fixing that problem will help us deal with the burnout problem, wisely, from multiple appropriate angles.

+1 for Stan
Justin, these are valid points — would have been nice if the authors of this piece incorporated them in the introdoction or conclusion. After all, this is not a scientific article, but a report on one, and proper context is important for broarder audience. As it stands, I am hesitant to retweet/forward this despite a great interest in the topic, as it does seem to imply workers’ fault and I do not wish to be associated with the message.

Thanks to everybody. I’m discoverying a new world…

I’m burned out after more than 40 years in journalism, writing books, speeches — writing, writing, writing. I no longer work in a newsroom, but at home. At this moment, I’m writing in bed, my new most comfortable office. I’m tired of writing, writing, writing. I want to be a ceramicist. Doesn’t time accrued count for burnout, too?

Seen from the limited perspective of the research, which I would be interested in reading more details about, I could see that the researchers could be trying to get underneath the burnout to figure out what the problem with the job is. If people have a bad coping mechanism for a temporarily high stress situation, or this is just an employee’s mechanism for dealing with the stress that is virtually any job, then that could perpetuate a cycle of stress, even if the original cause of stress is gone. I’m only thinking this ’cause I’m showing symptoms of two of these conditions, but I like most of my work, the people, the environment, but not all. I’m definitely complaining about the hierarchy, and I’m probably distancing myself from the work, at least part of it. Usually this is the problem with any study, it brings up more questions after answering only one.

Stan nails it, for sure. Now we can take it a step further and go beyond pathologizing people in positions of power (and yes, many seem to be pathological, indeed) and start to look at a pathological culture that creates sickness through consumerism, war, ceaseless economic expansion, shocking inequality, materialism…

Wait! Naaah, there’s no pill for that. Keep calm, cope, and carry on.

Many people are working in jobs they do not enjoy simply to meet their financial and family commitments. They are often become trapped by those responsibilities and feel unable to change their work or lifestyle without a huge reduction in their earnings so they carry on growing increasingly unhappy and resentful. Making decisions about the career direction one wishes to take when still uncertain in ones teens can set people on the wrong path. They often choose subjects advised by parents to ensure a secure future which directs people into professions or careers for practical rather than emotional reasons which do not suit their temperament at all. Many practical or creative people end up feeling stifled in a career where earning potential has been placed above personal fulfilment and satisfaction.

I also agree that poor management is a key factor in creating low morale and a lack of prospects in the workplace. Many people are superb at their own job but not temperamentally suited to the pressures placed on them when they are promoted into a management position where they have to motivate and bring out the best in others. There is an art to managing people and some do not possess the perceptiveness, intuition, interpersonal skills or emotional intelligence to handle it. Some find the increased stress levels hard to manage and pass down their insecurity and anxieties to those they manage rather than shoulder it themselves. There should be more training for people being promoted into management roles to ensure that they are suited to managing others or possess the ability to adapt successfully to take on that responsibility. It may be better to promote them in another direction. Sharon Henry. New Leaf Life & Business Coaching.

There is a fourth type of burnout – organizational burnout, which is endemic within organizational culture a dn structures, and a distinct lack of awareness of this phenomenon.

Thought that the first 3 paragraphs of this article weren’t very necessary, aside from that, I enjoyed it.

I do agree with several of the comments on here. There is an organizational and management factor that plays a role in burnout and morale. It has become more evident since the “austerity” (or downsizing, whichever you prefer to call it) plan came into being To put the onus on the employee who, probably by the way, has been coping with burnout for sometime already is telling him to “suck it up and live with it.” That is not a good strategy for anyone. But there is one point also, a manager cannot “motivate” people. Employees do have to find their own internal motivation. It is a two way street. But, many times, it is a bad organizational structure and/or management.

The article is helpful, thank you. Stan is correct that this shouldn’t be as much about getting therapy for the faulty employees as fixing management and culture to prevent these reactions in the staff.

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