By now, we've all been fairly warned of the increasing prevalence and consequences of burnout, but actively preventing it isn't easy. You first must know what causes it. On this front, most of what has been written on the topic is less clear. Even the World Health Organization's definition ("mismanagement of chronic workplace stress") doesn't give you much to work with except the obvious: stress.
However, Christina Malasch, the Berkeley professor emerita you could safely call the "mother of burnout" for her pioneering work to bring academic rigor to the topic, explains in her research that there are "six areas of worklife that encompass the central relationships with burnout."
While workload tends to be the most common self-reported cause of workplace stress, the research is clear that ignoring the other five will leave you ill-equipped to avoid burnout yourself or prevent it from making the rounds in your team or company.
Here are the six factors that determine whether you'll burn out:
1. An overwhelming workload.
While the quantity of work alone can be enough to push this factor into the red, there are two other ways workload can lead to burnout. You may be assigned work that you lack the skills or tools to do. Emotional work--like that done in human service or medical professions--can be especially draining because displaying emotions that are inconsistent with your environment (e.g., comforting a traumatized client) is exhausting. To keep your workload in the healthy range, keep an eye on the quantity, difficulty, and emotionality of your work.
2. A loss of control.
Control is a key driver of motivation. Reduce it below a certain level and you'll lose motivation and the sense of accomplishment that normally comes from completing work. Control drops to problematic levels when you don't have the ability to direct or modify the resources needed to do your work or you don't have authority to pursue your work in the way you think is best. Control can also combine with excessive workload to make you feel out of control. Monitor your control levels by staying aware of how motivated you are.
3. Not being rewarded for efforts.
If you are not rewarded adequately and frequently enough, you'll likely end up feeling ineffective and begin to distance yourself from your work. Financial compensation is an obvious reward, but recognition is just as powerful. Almost 80 percent of employees who quit their jobs claim that lack of appreciation was a major reason for leaving, and 60 percent say they are more motivated by recognition than money.
Sometimes work can also bring its own reward because we find doing work that is important, doing work well, and learning from our work motivating. A simple way to determine if your rewards are adequate is to determine if you feel thankful for your job.
4. Not being part of a thriving community.
You work best when you know you belong. Belonging means you feel someone else will have your back and you can talk to someone if work or life isn't going well. Business relationships that lack personal depth are generally inadequate. Relational conflicts--especially unresolved ones--are particularly likely to put you at risk of burnout. To know if you have a strong community, ask yourself if you would enjoy attending a social function with co-workers.
5. Not being treated fairly.
If you don't think your boss, leaders, or company treat you or your colleagues fairly, you may find yourself on the road to burnout. Employers communicate how much they value you--or not--through fairness. Examples of unfairness include inequity in workload or pay, cheating, and evaluations and promotions driven by factors other than merit. Lack of fairness leads to burnout by creating emotional stress and fueling cynicism toward your workplace. To monitor fairness, keep track of whether you feel respected.
6. Having to adhere to the wrong values.
You're more likely to burn out if your company's values don't align with yours or your company acts inconsistently with values it purports to hold. If your boss or company ask you to do something that is inconsistent with your values on a repeated basis, then you're likely to develop cynicism and then detachment from your job. A simple way to assess this factor is to ask yourself if you are proud of your company.
To prevent burnout, think holistically about the six factors that lead to it and begin monitoring each in the simplest way possible:
- Workload: Is the quantity, difficulty, or emotionality of my work too much?
- Control: Am I generally motivated to do my work?
- Reward: Do I feel thankful for my job regularly?
- Community: Would I like to attend a social function with my co-workers?
- Fairness: Do I feel respected by my company and superiors?
- Values: Am I proud of my company?