Burnout is an all too common term these days. It’s spoken about everywhere you turn and researchers are attempting to find out what specifically leads workers to burn out.
Because burnout is a stress-related disorder, it makes sense to explore the psychology behind it. In 2021, the American Psychological Association surveyed 1501 U.S. working adults and the results were staggering. Nearly 80 percent were dealing with work-related stress in the month before the survey. These workers reported many other symptoms including:
- A lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%)
- Reduced effort at work (19%)
- Cognitive weariness (36%)
- Emotional exhaustion (32%)
- Physical fatigue (44%)
What is clear is that burnout affects a large proportion of workers and it affects their well-being in various ways.
But what leads workers to burn out in the first place?
According to Christina Maslach, a primary researcher on burnout, there are six factors that contribute to a job-person mismatch that ultimately lead to burnout. These include:
- Excessive workload
- Low autonomy or control
- Lack of acknowledgment
- Lack of support
- Poor ethics
- Unfair treatment
Recently, researchers from a European Business School (ESCP) examined the role of working long hours on well-being. After surveying more than 500 professionals in the Spanish division of a major international consultancy firm, they concluded that working long hours does not necessarily hurt your health. What distinguishes between those who burn out and those who don’t given the long hours at work? According to the study, the answer lies in why professionals work as much as they do.
Why Do You Work So Much?
Many of the people I’ve coached or interviewed experienced burnout as a result of working too much. When they were busy pushing themselves to accomplish more and more, they weren’t sleeping enough, which surely contributed to their exhaustion. They also skipped meals or ate unhealthy foods, didn’t make time to exercise, turned to alcohol to deal with the stress, and either neglected their relationships or tried to be everything to everyone.
So why do we do this to ourselves?
When it comes to work, we each have different motivating factors that can lead us to work long hours. For some, the motivation is mostly extrinsic and not surprisingly, when you focus externally, you are more likely to burn out.
If the only reason you stay late at work is because other people stay late, then that peer pressure on which you base your decisions does not necessarily align with your own beliefs. This psychological phenomenon is called the bandwagon effect and the reason it might be burning you out is because of that mismatch Christina Maslach talked about. Working these long hours feels excessive to you but you endure it because of the expectation of others.
External motivation, however, does not have to equate with a mismatch. Many people work long hours to climb up the corporate ladder in terms of promotion in title or pay. Others may be seeking rewards such as feedback, acknowledgement, or recognition. Finally, there are those who use work as a form of procrastination or avoidance. There is a void in their personal life and to circumvent the emotional pain, they hide out at work.
Anytime you are too focused on short-term outcomes while ignoring how working as much as you do is affecting you mind, body, and relationships, you are at increased risk for burnout.
On the flip side, you might be putting in the extra hours due to intrinsic motivations like a desire to learn, to beef up your skill set, or because you find your work meaningful. While these reasons don’t mean you’re immune to burning out, researchers have found that because these motivators are more grounded in positive emotions, even when you work long hours, you enjoy yourself more which means less overall stress.
Regardless of your reasons for pulling up your sleeves and diving into work for extensive amounts of time per week, if you’re feeling burned out, something has to change.
How to Work Long Hours and Not Burn Out
While creating a match between you and your work environment is important, to further prevent burnout, you want to pay attention to whether the motivation to work long hours is aligned with your other life values.
In my book, The 7E Solution to Burnout, I refer to a concept called Effort-Reward Balance. What this principle alludes to is that you need to have adequate reward for your efforts. If you’re working in excess of 55 hours, are doing so due to external motivations, and are burning out, it might be because you don’t feel rewarded enough for your work.
In that case, consider what would help balance the equation more in your favor. Would it be working less or increasing the rewards? If working less is the answer, you’ll have to experiment with how you feel when you reduce the number of hours you work. If increasing the rewards is the answer, you may want to look for intrinsic motivators so you can transform your work experience to be more positive.
To demonstrate the importance of this, here is an excerpt from my book:
“Researchers conducted a study whereby students were asked to screw bolts in for one hour. At the end of that inordinately tedious task, the researchers offered students money to recommend the task to other prospective participants. Some students received one dollar while others were paid $20 for their recommendation.
Those who received $20 thought that while the task was boring, they got well-compensated, so it evened out. There was sufficient justification for their lie, and they did not feel internally conflicted about it. The students who received only one dollar experienced cognitive dissonance when asked to recommend the task to others. They felt a tension between their belief that the task was monotonous and their decision to support it. Because their compensation was too small to justify lying, they had to change their perception of the task to eliminate their inner conflict.”
Balance or Burnout
Working long hours doesn’t necessarily lead to burnout. Surprisingly, working long hours due to external motivators also doesn’t guarantee that you’ll burn out. That’s because too often we have a combination of both external and internal motivations to work. For example, you might want to learn more skills (internal motivator) in order to get promoted (external motivator).
In addition to balancing your efforts and rewards and finding a motivational balance between the intrinsic and extrinsic, it’s also important to create balance between work and your personal life.
The key to creating this balance is finding out how your values at work align with your total life values. Even if you are striving to create momentum in your career, you may also value spending time with friends or family, investing in a hobby or a sport, or just having some down time.
Be proactive about how you spend your time outside of work. Too often, people will focus exclusively on work and say they don’t have time for their personal interests, self-care, or fun. That’s because they are waiting to end their work and see if there is time left over to squeeze other activities in.
Being proactive means scheduling these events in advance. Make a decision about what you want to do when you’re not at work and plan for it. Once you create that balanced schedule and start living life from a place of balance, you’ll feel less resentful about the time and energy work takes from you and start feeling more alive.
Work can be stressful as can working long hours, especially when you aren’t feeling fulfilled or when there are areas in your life you are neglecting. But what ultimately puts you at risk for burnout is your WHY.
Make sure you are working for the right reasons and not because your brain says you should or because you’ve been programmed to think like other people.
Burnout can often be a wakeup call to examine your values and why you do what you do both in and out of the workplace. You don’t have to burn out to start examining your life. You can avoid burnout by asking yourself powerful questions and tuning in to hear the answers.
If you’re burning out, download the Burnout Checklist to see which stage you are in and what you need to focus on to recover. Go to: www.drsharongrossman.com/burnoutchecklist