Burnout in the Workplace: Three Surprise Causes and How to Address Them

It might be challenging to know when you are experiencing everyday stress versus burnout. I've outlined three surprising causes of burnout you might be overlooking.

I find that clients dealing with burnout often have difficulty recognizing it. They use terms like “stressed out,” but when we evaluate what’s happening, it’s clear they’ve been grappling with a high level of stress for a long time. And work stress, compounded over a long period, becomes unhealthy and unsustainable. This is what I call burnout.

In these times, it’s crucial not to mislabel burnout as “pandemic stress,” which gives the impression that what you or your employees are experiencing will go away if you can just hang in there. In truth, the factors that usually contribute to burnout are prevalent and pernicious.

As leaders and employees, we have to understand those factors and be prepared to address them before things reach a crisis level. The extra focus that companies are placing on personal wellness now will not last forever. And it may not command this level of collective attention again for a long time to come.

With that in mind, I’m breaking down three core causes of burnout that you should be aware of, along with additional resources to help you understand and address each as they arise, either personally or on your team:

1. Job Creep

Job creep is the unanticipated expansion of a role with additional responsibilities. When “new stuff” is added to an employee’s plate, without any adjustment to resources, responsibilities turn into an unmanageable workload. And that leads to burnout.

In this scenario, many employees convince themselves that putting in more hours at the cost of personal balance is just part of the “new normal” or what is necessary to keep from letting down their peers.

In a healthy organization, employees and leaders are empowered to figure out how to complete the work that needs to be done sustainably.

Some roles and some types of organizations require employees to wear different hats at different times. In my own experience—especially in startups— I’ve had to blend several jobs to fulfill my functions in the organization. But I was challenged to draw healthy boundaries by understanding which work contributed to my career gain and business goals and which work was unnecessarily distracting from it.

I recommend:  The best way to combat the risk of job creep is to get clear on the scope of your role and what you want to get out of it. From there, you can evaluate whether any extra time you put in is worth what you stand to gain from it or not. If doing multiple jobs is an unwelcome surprise to you or your employees, it’s time to evaluate if processes, resources, or expectations need to change to deliver results sustainably.

For more insight, read The Expanding Job

In the article, Anne Helen Peterson talks about how organizations have created unsustainable job creep by trimming the fat in their organizations. Key insights:

  • Sometimes the fat has an essential purpose that we fail to see in the quest to justify the cost. It will cost us in other ways.
  • Technology advancements can simplify specific tasks, but they add more complexity to other aspects of our jobs. We cannot accept the myth that increased efficiency removes workload.
  • Job creep, exacerbated by poor leadership or management, will lead to employee burnout.


2. Uncertainty

It’s not only overwhelm that leads to burnout. Uncertainty does, too. In these scenarios, a lack of job support, understanding, and learning opportunities get employees trapped in a vicious cycle of “catching up” or “figuring things out” on their own—at the cost of personal wellbeing.

The cycle usually looks something like this: an employee does not understand their role (based on generalized, changing, or unspoken expectations of their manager); this, in turn, leads to extended hours spent trying to figure things out; gradually, boundaries dissolve and the employee feels hopeless because autonomy and command of their role never comes; the perceived need to be “always-on” breeds resentment that consumes even more valuable energy.

I recommend:  As an employee, understand expectations and ask for feedback to be more sure of what you are doing and whether or not you are doing it correctly. If fear of making a mistake has you constantly second-guessing yourself and struggling to complete regular tasks, examine the source of that fear so you can adequately address it.

Breaking things into manageable pieces will often free you to focus on the next step rather than feeling daunted by the broader project you’re working on.

As a leader, ensure that the expectations for every project are clear to employees and that, upfront, they have access to the tools and resources they need to complete the work to be done. Don’t micro-manage; empower.

Remember, we’re all responsible for our development, so a certain level of uncertainty is normal. Think 70/20/10. Seventy percent of your development will come from your own efforts; twenty percent you can expect to learn on the job; ten percent you will probably get from  your employer’s formal programs.

For more insight, read What You’re Getting Wrong about Burnout.

In the article, Liz Fosslien talks about how uncertainty contributes to burnout and specific steps managers can take to create a more healthy work environment. Key insights:

  • In 2020, 71% of employees experienced burnout at least once—the prevalence is shocking.
  • There are multiple dimensions of burnout, including uncertainty:
    • Lack of clear goals and milestones
    • Feeling under-supported or under-appreciated
    • Lacking autonomy
    • Lacking connection
    • Lacking resources and learning opportunities
  • Managers can combat this with empathetic communication, a purposeful team culture, and proactive employee development.


3. Collaborative Overload

Believe it or not, too much collaboration can also result in burnout. While sharing the load among team members is valuable, the era of “let’s collaborate” has employees over-indexing on teamwork and feeling excessive pressure to be available for their peers and keep up by expanding their workdays and letting work spill into personal / family time.

 We must remember that to do a good job requires independent work: autonomy, time to think, and the ability to keep a good portion of responsibilities free from unnecessary complexity.

 There’s no doubt that technology and organizational expectations contribute to collaborative overload, but data shows the phenomenon is primarily self-driven.

 I recommend:  Managers owe it to their employees, and employees owe it to themselves to treat solo work and thinking time as important as collaborative work. This is what allows for greater innovation and creativity. But, teams must also agree on how much time should be allocated for individual versus team-oriented activities. Team collaboration must be flexible but also well-defined and predictable.

During the workweek, time must be blocked out for reflection-free from email, IMs, and meetings. This is the only way to ensure we have time to do our jobs well and avoid creating an always-on culture that benefits no one in the long run.

 For more insight, read When Collaboration Fails and Collaboration Overload is Sinking Productivity

In these articles, Rob Cross, Inga Carboni, and their fellow researchers reveal patterns of collaborative dysfunction and approaches for mitigating them, according to their multi-phase Organizational Network Analysis study of 66 organizations. Key insights:

  • A majority of organizations are shifting to more cross-functional and team-based work, yet only a small percentage are perceived as “very ready” to make the shift. An even smaller percentage of managers within those organizations feel equipped to manage such work effectively.
  • Excessive demands for collaboration gridlocked projects and was a significant predictor of voluntary turnover in the organizations studied.
  • Collaborative work is consuming 85% or more of most people’s workweeks.
  • Collaborative overload is being driven by too much context switching and deep-seated personal motivations to jump in and help—even if it’s not necessary.

Inevitably, we all face pressures that can lead to burnout. To protect yourself and your team from its negative impact, remember:

  • Focus on what’s in your control: by setting the proper boundaries and communicating, you have the power to prevent your environment from pushing you or your team into unhealthy behaviors.
  • Understand where you are on the stress spectrum: Constantly remain mindful of this to address stressors before they become chronic.
  • Decide what the line is: Understand your “why” and what you’re working towards. From there, you can stay focused on behaviors that contribute to your goals and draw the line at behaviors that are detracting from them.
  • Be prepared to make a change when the line is crossed: You determine your journey, and no job, manager, or company will care about it as much as you do. Be willing to walk away from an unhealthy situation to make room for better opportunities.

If you’re facing burnout or struggling to set boundaries and gain control of your job and career, I’m here to help. Schedule a free consultation, and together we’ll develop a customized coaching plan to support your personal and professional growth.



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