Career burnout is a pressing concern in education. And corporate law. And social work. And nursing. And finance. And journalism. The list goes on. In fact, it's hard to think of a job sector that isn't haunted by the b-word. Of course, each job comes with its own stressors, duties and types of assholes. But, the basic cause of burnout may be the same across different industries. A new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that workers burnout when their "unconscious needs" don't match "the demands and opportunities at the workplace." Basically, a power-monger needs a job that lets them run the show. A people-lover needs a job that lets them relate and connect.
The psychologist Herbert Freudenberger introduced the term "burnout" to research in 1974, according to The Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, describing the "loss of motivation, growing sense of emotional depletion, and cynicism" he noticed among volunteers at a free clinic. "Formerly idealistic mental health workers," The Observer wrote, "were finding themselves depleted and weary, resenting patients and the clinic."
Burnout takes a toll on worker health, having been linked to mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, lowered immunity and a spate of sleep issues, including insomnia. But the ill-effects of burnout transcend the welfare of individual employees. A downtrodden, fed-up workforce means increased absenteeism, rapid job turnover and reduced productivity. Burnout is a bummer for everyone.
So, here's the highly sensible explanation for burnout, courtesy of authors from the Universities of Zurich and Leipzig. It concerns two unconscious, but little-known needs that drive employees.
1) The power motive, aka, a burning passion for bossing people around, "in order to feel strong and self-efficacious."
2) The affiliation motive, which is "the need for positive personal relations," to feel a sense of trust and belonging.
These are referred to as "implicit motives," meaning it's hard for people to consciously assess the degree to which they thrive on asserting power or forming bonds. But, when their job functions don't jibe with their hardwired tendencies, burnout's a-brewing.
For the study, researchers recruited 97 adults through an online forum for burnout. Participants answered questions about their jobs, health and feelings of burnout. To measure the two implicit motives, researchers asked participants to write short stories based on pictures (showing various scenes, including women in a science lab). Experts analyzed the stories, looking for sentences that described either positive interpersonal dynamics (suggesting affiliation motive) or power dynamics (suggesting power motive).
Once they scored the questionnaires and analyzed the stories, researchers found a link between burnout and mis-matched motives. Those with high affiliation motive whose jobs lacked opportunities for interpersonal relationships, for example, scored sky-high on burnout. Researchers also found increased physical-health issues (e.g. headaches, shortness of breath) among people with high power motive and low-power jobs.
The findings might be relevant in designing hiring processes: "A starting point could be to select job applicants in such a way that their implicit motives match the characteristics of the open position," said one study co-author. "Another strategy could be so-called "job crafting," where employees proactively try to enrich their job in order to meet their individual needs. For example, an employee with a strong affiliation motive might handle her duties in a more collaborative way and try to find ways to do more teamwork."
So, according to this theory, who's likely to burnout? A heart surgeon who loves to befriend strangers but crumbles under pressure. A freelance reporter who thrives on delegating duties but feels uncomfortable meddling in the personal affairs of strangers. A middle-school teacher who can't tolerate the stench of non-deoderized pre-pubescence. Well, maybe the study doesn't support the last example, but we all know seventh-graders are a smelly bunch.