job burnout
Creativity Creative Thinking

Why We Experience Job Burnout and How to Prevent It

5 Minute Read

We’ve all been there: those days when the work seems just too overwhelming, the demands just seem to keep growing, and the level of inspiration and capacity for creative thinking we have to complete the work leaves much to be desired.

Job burnout is all too common, but some recent scientific insights are shedding light on why it happens and what we can do to prevent it.

The Psychology of Burnout

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has discovered that we feel burnout because of a psychological mismatch between our unconscious needs and the opportunities and demands that are available to us at work. When there is a good fit between a person and their environment, it leads to positive outcomes with respect to job satisfaction, job performance, organizational commitment, and well-being. When there is a bad fit, it leads to burnout.

But what are our unconscious needs? Essentially, they refer to our psychological desires, motives, and goals. They vary from person to person, but they are deep rooted and give rise to our psychological well-being. Whether it’s a need to do more creative thinking in the office or the desire to mentor those around us, when these needs aren’t met, there can be both mental and physical consequences—such as tension, anxiety, and depression.

The researchers identified two main, implicit psychological motives: affiliation and power. Affiliation refers to our drive to establish and maintain positive relationships with others leading to the experience of interpersonal trust, warmth, and belonging. Power motives are drives to have a mental, emotional, or physical impact on others in order to feel strong and self-efficacious. But the implicit nature of these drives means that they often remain unconscious. We can’t be unaware that there is something seriously wrong until a crisis moment or the manifestation of more serious mental and physical symptoms of burnout.

According to the study: “the greater the mismatch between someone’s affiliation motive and the scope for personal relations at the job, the higher the risk of burnout.” A mismatch between an employee’s power motives and the scope for power in the job resulted in marked negative physical consequences such as headaches, chest pain, faintness, and shortness of breath.


Creating a Climate of Authenticity

In a study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, researchers proposed the creation of a “climate of authenticity” to help prevent and alleviate burnout.

They found that some of the key factors that lead to burnout from an emotional standpoint have to do with not being able to express yourself authentically in the workplace. Emotional expression tends to be muted or happen “backstage” with other coworkers, and there is a general perspective that only positive emotional expression is healthy for group dynamics. In some workplaces, such as healthcare, the expectation for compassionate detachment means that “getting emotional” is viewed as unprofessional.

The researchers defined a climate of authenticity as an environment in which there is a shared perception about the extent to which the working unit values and accepts expression of emotions among members—specifically negative emotions. If all the employees feel they are able to express themselves honestly and comfortably without interpersonal repercussions (feeling like they can “be themselves”), that is a climate of authenticity. And because it offers employees a break from having to constantly self-regulate emotions with the “public” (customers or patients, for instance), it lessens the kind of resource depletion that leads to burnout.

This sheds a whole new light on popular perceptions in the working world, particularly those thrust upon Millennials trying to get their feet in the door. The first mantra that comes to mind, “fake it ’til you make it,” seems to encourage the kind of inauthenticity that leads to burnout.

Collaborating at Work

How to Prevent Burnout at Work

The hardest thing about job burnout is that it tends to creep up on you. Rather than stemming from one defining moment, it comes from an accumulation of factors that, taken individually, may seem insignificant.

For a company, ensuring your employees don’t burn out starts in the candidate selection process. Make sure you’re asking questions about individuals’ motivational fit for the job. Because it can be hard to tap into the specifics of some of these unconscious motivations through creative thinking alone, using measures and questionnaires like those cited in the research can be a helpful tool.

Employees can also help prevent burnout in their current jobs by trying to proactively shape their roles so the day-to-day work more closely aligns with their own motivational needs. If you thrive on teamwork, try to create more opportunities to work together with others on the tasks that need to get done. Ask for feedback and input more often, and offer to help out with other work in a collaborative way.

Managers can ensure their teams are psychologically healthy by doing regular check-ins and encouraging more open lines of communication and feedback between colleagues. People may feel uncomfortable sharing honest feelings openly, so try tactics like setting up an anonymous feedback channel (it could be an online poll or a physical box in the office) where employees can regularly air grievances and offer suggestions for improvement. Try to discourage the perception that expressing emotions honestly is unprofessional. Offer times and places where employees know they can open up without fear of interpersonal or professional repercussions.

If you feel the nagging of impending burnout, start by doing some self-reflection. What are your motivational needs? What are the things that lead to satisfaction in your day, and what are the things that lead to frustration? How can you better maximize the instances of satisfaction? Do you feel like you can be yourself at work? If not, what suggestions can you make to coworkers and managers about how to better foster a climate of authenticity at work?

As directors, managers, and employees at all levels, we need to seriously consider the importance of shaping the social and emotional character of our workplaces in a sustainable way, both for the health of one another and the health of our organizations in the long term.

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Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at

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