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Underlying Causes of Burnout and What You Can Do to Eliminate Them

Friday, August 9, 2019

“Building engagement is the best approach to preventing burnout. People who are engaged with their work are better able to cope with the challenges they encounter and thus are more likely to recover from stress.” —Christina Maslach

German-born psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first used the term burnout to describe a "state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life," which can lead to cynicism and a lack of engagement at work. Extreme cases of burnout can result in an inability to complete day-to-day work activities.

If you're concerned with the emotional and physical health of your workplace as well as its effectiveness and productivity, it may be time to look at the underlying causes of employee burnout and how you can eliminate them.

Underlying Causes of Employee Burnout

Employee burnout is generally characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced effectiveness. It can take a major toll on the psychological well-being and physical health of your staff as well as their work performance.

In her article "Burnout and Engagement in the Workplace: New Perspectives," Christina Maslach, professor of psychology with the University of California at Berkeley, reveals a framework of contributing factors of burnout she calls the Maslach Burnout Inventory. It consists of six domains:

  • workload
  • control
  • reward
  • community
  • fairness
  • values.

Addressing burnout at your workplace means taking on each of these causal areas with effective solutions.

What You Can Do to Avoid Burnout

Your ultimate aim should be to make your people feel more engaged with the organization’s mission, more excited by the vision, and more willing to aspire to one while achieving the other. Creating a better sense of community while reducing work-related stress will help you achieve your aim and avoid employee burnout and its attendant problems.


Let’s use the Maslach Burnout Inventory to sort out possible solutions to burnout.

Overwhelming Workload. To address unrealistic expectations, conflicting priorities, lack of skills, or inclination for certain types of work, try:

  • setting clear priorities and goals for team members
  • being realistic about project time lines and chances of success
  • carefully managing employee workloads
  • scheduling regular checks of progress.

Lack of Control. If team members believe they do not possess proper authority or control over resources needed to do the assigned job, project, or task, try:

  • matching tasks to skills and preferences wherever possible
  • outlining exactly what’s expected from them
  • understanding when staff need additional training or support
  • keeping an open line of communication and pursuing regular feedback from direct reports.

Insufficient Rewards. When there is a lack of balance between reasonable salaries (and benefits) and recognition for desired performance, try:

  • creating links between employee recognition and company values
  • making it easy to provide feedback
  • recognizing specific actions, results, and behaviors
  • sharing stories.

Poor Sense of Community. Sometimes work environments can isolate team members. This can lead to chronic or unresolved conflict, hostility, and lack of social support. If your team is feeling frustrated, try:

  • leading by example and getting to know your employees better
  • acknowledging important things happening in employee lives, such as birthdays, engagements, and weddings
  • making time for events and team building, including company trips, after-work drinks, and retreats
  • encouraging friendly competition at the office such as gaming pools, fitness challenges, or fundraising efforts.

Unfair Policies and Decision Makers. When there is workload or pay inequity or poor handling of evaluations, promotions, and grievances, try:

  • establishing clear rules with transparency in implementing them
  • focusing on better processes or better outcomes, ideally both
  • understanding employee expectations
  • continuously monitoring employee satisfaction.

Conflict of Values. Your team may experience a disconnect between personal values and company values. If the company’s lofty mission statement is disconnected from the way the organization actually operates, try:

  • making organizational values part of the hiring process
  • leading by example and knowing your organizational values
  • reinforcing organizational values in communications like employee newsletters
  • rewarding those who embody company values.

Your U ltimate Aim Is to Thrive

Addressing important issues like workload, rewards, fairness, and values will reduce work-related stress and diminish worker burnout. More importantly, taking these steps to shrink job burnout can lead to your aim of helping individual employees and the organization thrive.

About the Author

Greg Zlevor is the president and founder of Westwood International. He has more than 25 years of experience in executive leadership development and education and has served as a coach, consultant, and facilitator collaborating with Fortune 50 companies, governments, and emerging industry leaders all over the world on programs that have profoundly shifted the way they do business. He has worked globally across Europe, Asia, North America, South America, and Australia. For additional information regarding Greg Zlevor, contact [email protected]

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