No, You Didn’t Cause Your Own Burnout
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When social worker Janet Morrison-Lane started working for a Dallas nonprofit focused on addressing urban poverty, she was aware of the high rates of burnout and turnover in her field. Two years was the statistic she heard about how long people lasted in a job like hers. But she planned to stay a long time. She embraced the organization’s culture, which was built on close relationships among staff members. As the nonprofit grew and changed over the next 16 years, she was a constant presence.
But then a youth education program she led ended, and she took a different role, targeting adult homelessness. “It wasn’t my forte,” she says. “I was frustrated. I was angry that we lost that program.” She pulled back emotionally from the work. But because she had been at the organization so long, her coworkers assumed she could handle any task, from working in the food pantry to taking pictures. “Everything was piling up,” she says, “‘Janet can do this, Janet can do that,’ but there was no promotion.” On top of this, a coworker was killed. The emotional strain and burnout were intense. “It just felt like a lot,” she says.
When I spoke with Morrison-Lane in 2020 and again in 2022, I heard about her exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of ineffectiveness at her job—the three classic elements of burnout. She’d thought something was wrong with her. “When I went from youth to adults,” she says, “it was still programming. It should be translatable, but it wasn’t.” She recalls thinking, “What does that say about me? Why can’t I do this?” A year later, she quit.
As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third year, you may be like countless other workers who are feeling the strain and on guard against burnout—or maybe you’re burnt out already. If you read business and health websites, you’ll keep encountering the same advice about how workers can prevent this problem: practice self-care, get better at scheduling, meditate, learn to say no. The Muse has certainly published advice for how individual workers can take steps to try to recover from burnout. Despite the authors’ genuine desire to help, their advice can send the subtle message that burnout is your problem, and it’s up to you to solve it. And, by extension, that if you burn out, it’s your fault.
Burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work.
But in fact, no individual action can keep burnout at bay. That’s because your individual actions aren’t what cause your burnout. Rather, burnout arises from a gap between what you expect work will or should look like and what you actually do at your job. That means society and culture (where widely-shared, lofty ideals about work as a site of meaning and purpose come from) and your specific workplace play much bigger roles than you do in whether or not you burn out. It also means that preventing burnout is the task of an entire organization, starting with the leaders and managers who design jobs and set the cultural tone.
As I learned while writing my book, The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, the best research on burnout acknowledges the leading role organizations play in fostering burnout. “Burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work,” Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter write in their influential book, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. “When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work”—when people’s needs and desires, both material and immaterial, go unmet—“then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.”
Maslach and Leiter identify six areas where “mismatches” between workers’ expectations and their workplace realities lead to burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. That is, you’re more likely to burn out when you do more or different work than you expected, when you have less autonomy, when you don’t get the salary or recognition you feel you deserve, when the workplace community breaks down, when you feel you’re being treated unfairly, or when a company’s values depart from your own.
Your employer controls most of those domains. They determine duties and schedules. They set salaries, benefits, and promotion criteria. Managers can foster or damage a sense of community and fairness—or not. And leaders articulate, in word and action, the values of the business. In an era when American workers have been deeply disappointed in their employers’ handling of the pandemic—from support for working parents to return-to-office mandates—the mismatches loom large.
It’s true that workers’ unrealistic expectations of themselves as well as their jobs and careers can play a role in burnout. But often, those expectations are shaped by organizational and industry-wide norms. If the company’s executives flaunt their 80-hour workweeks, or if managers email their staff at 11 PM on Friday, they send the message that an ideal employee needs to be constantly on the clock.
Nationwide cultural expectations also contribute to the high ideals workers bring to their jobs. In the United States and many other countries, being “hardworking” is a major cultural value. People work hard in part to avoid the shame that comes with the “lazy” label. But by striving for status in that way, workers can end up not only overworking, but also persisting in jobs that aren’t right for them. And changing jobs may not end someone’s burnout if the values and conditions at their new workplace mirror those at their previous one.
A major contributor to Morrison-Lane’s burnout was the cultural change that took place in the nonprofit world over the course of her career. When she was starting out in the 1990s, funding agencies—including foundations and government—trusted nonprofits to do the work they promised. But then the agencies started demanding more oversight. “It has to be about metrics, metrics, metrics,” Morrison-Lane says, which added a slew of new tasks to be completed and amped up the expectations.
While she was directing the education program, for example, she felt external pressure to grow it rather than engage with the kids it served. “I couldn’t figure out how to scale it, and I wanted to focus on the youths and doing things with them, not how to create a one-sheet piece of paper that funders would like,” she says. “I think that wore on me a lot.”
Getting past burnout required a major external change in my job. I had to quit.
Morrison-Lane’s story resonates so strongly with me in part because I went through something similar. I began my career as a college professor filled with ideals and energy. I was going to live the life of the mind. I wore a tweed jacket everywhere. And for about eight years, I thrived. I got praise for my teaching, published articles and a book, won grants, and earned tenure.
Then I took on more responsibilities: leading a curriculum committee, for instance, and heading up the teaching center. I did it partly because people asked me to, partly because I believed (falsely) that I was the only one who could do this important work. At the same time, the college was going through a budgetary and accreditation crisis. There were layoffs, benefit cuts, and a salary freeze. There was just more work for everyone to do and more conflict over scarce resources. And like the nonprofit sector, higher education embraced assessment and metrics. So I didn’t just have to teach well; I also had to document exactly what I did to improve students’ learning from semester to semester.
I spent two years wondering what was wrong with me. I believed an ideal professor should be able to do it all, and I couldn’t. I grew increasingly frustrated and lost faith in my teaching ability. I lay in bed for hours in the morning and avoided the office as much as possible. I would outline my lesson plan on a Post-It note, and when class ended, I threw the note away.
For me, like for Morrison-Lane, getting past burnout required a major external change in my job. I had to quit. Looking back now, I know I had absorbed ideals from academic culture that were unattainable, and I worked in an institution that was under great pressure. I wish someone had stopped me from taking on so much work. I wish I had felt greater reward and recognition. I wish I had been able to focus on the kind of work I truly loved.
To prevent and heal burnout, we need to focus on the site of its true causes: not the heart or mind of the suffering worker but the conditions that make them suffer. Leaders and managers need to think about how their policies, from communicating expectations to recognizing good work, might be creating the mismatches Maslach and Leiter identify. If you’re in such a role, how might you be encouraging employees’ unreasonable ideals of devotion and fulfillment through work? And how might the conditions they labor in fall short?
As an individual employee, you can’t fix your burnout alone or single-handedly change norms in our society or even your organization. But you can think about how, in collaboration with your coworkers, supervisors, and clients, you might reshape your job so it better aligns with your ideals. That could mean different schedules or responsibilities. It could mean transferring out of a department where the community has turned toxic. And, yes, it could also mean lowering your ideals for work. Perhaps you need to see your work less as an opportunity to “do what you love” and more as a means to support the other areas of life that make you who you are.
Workplaces are the biggest contributors to burnout, but people, up and down the organizational chart, are the workplace. Workers, managers, and leaders can’t wait until the pandemic ends to deal with burnout in their organizations. We have to start now. And with honest conversation and collective action, we can make work better for everyone.