burnout syndrome

Causes Of Burnout Syndrome

Burnout syndrome can be a devastating experience that can leave a person feeling stressed, exhausted and mentally & emotionally drained. By identifying the causes of burnout, one can seek help and overcome the symptoms.

What Is Burnout Syndrome?

Burnout is primarily a mental state that is caused by chronic work-related stress and frustration. Some of the key elements of the syndrome include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization & decreased personal accomplishment. A 2016 study 1 describes the condition as “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.” Burnout syndrome can lead to overwhelming exhaustion, low energy, lack of motivation, cynicism and detachment from work and the workplace.

The syndrome is identified as a non-medical life-management difficulty and classified as a type of adjustment disorder and an occupational phenomenon. If left untreated, it can significantly impair a person’s ability to perform their job and to function in daily life.

What Causes Burnout Syndrome?

Although most people believe that burnout syndrome is simply an effect of being overworked or working long hours, there may be many other causes and crucial risk factors. There are multiple factors that come into play for the development of this syndrome. Here are some of the research-backed reasons that lead to the development of this condition:

1. Work overload

The major aspects of the syndrome, namely lethargy, depression and cynicism, tend to occur when the nature of the task, whether at work or home, contradicts the person’s sense of self or the work they want to do. Work overload can substantially affect a person’s mental and emotional well being. A 2016 study 2 found that there is a causal relationship between work overload, employee well-being, burnout and other psychological ill-health symptoms over time.

Layoffs and downsizing can also have negative effects, such as higher risk of sickness and increased risk of mortality, apart from burnout. “Organisational downsizing may increase sickness absence and the risk of death from cardiovascular disease in employees who keep their jobs,” explains 2004 study 3. If someone works excessively, avoids taking breaks or doesn’t modify their working patterns based on their different needs, then it may also lead to burnout syndrome.

2. Personality traits

Researchers believe that personality variables may play an important role in the development of this condition. Research 4 shows there is a significant relationship between personality traits, job performance, turnover and burnout. One 2009 study found that certain factors like, “self-esteem, self-efficacy, locus of control, emotional stability, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, positive affectivity, negative affectivity, optimism, proactive personality, and hardiness,” have a relationship with this condition.

3. Depressive cognitive style

Cognitive dispositional factors present in depression are also associated with this mental and emotional state. A 2016 study 5 claims that burnout is a depressive syndrome. The researchers state “Dysfunctional attitudes, ruminative responses, and pessimistic attributions were each similarly associated with burnout and depression.”

4. Inability to cope

The condition may also be caused by certain stressors that a person is unable to deal with effectively. According to a 2015 study 6, the condition may be caused by “the accumulation of emotional disturbances, perception of low self-capacity, and maladaptation – all of which are elicited by stressors and subsequently culminate in suboptimal functioning.” This can lead to a cycle of persistent emotional disturbance which may further lower performance and functionality.

5. Work-life imbalance

When an individual invests too much effort and time into their work, then may have fewer time and energy to spend with themselves and their loved ones. This can eventually make them feel burned out. One 2014 study 7 explains “Work-life imbalance is associated with decreased job satisfaction, productivity, and eventual burn out.” Another 2010 study 8 has found that a decline in work-life balance can lead to a decrease in physical and psychological well-being, lower productivity, higher unwanted turnover and increased stress-related ailments.

What Are The Risk Factors Of Burnout Syndrome?

Researchers 9 Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter explains “certain factors (both situational and individual) cause people to experience burnout, and once burnout occurs, it causes certain outcomes (both situational and individual).” There are various risk factors associated with this condition, which can be both internal and external in nature. According to a 2012 study 10, the following risk factors should be considered:

1. External factors

Risk factors that are external to the person may include the following elements:

  • Working conditions: Human-computer interaction, daylight, shift work, involvement with people, overcrowding, ambient noise, high-pressure or chaotic environment etc.
  • Job settings: Work overload, overly demanding expectations, lack of fairness, lack of control, insufficient reward, conflicting values, unchallenging or monotonous work etc.
  • Job insecurity: Layoffs, downsizing, lack of recognition, rewards or promotions.

2. Individual factors

Internal risk factors that depend on the individuals typically consists of certain personality features and other factors, like-

  • Neuroticism
  • Extraversion
  • Conscientiousness
  • Alexithymia
  • Type A behavior or being high-achieving
  • Perfectionism or being a perfectionist
  • Pessimistic mindset
  • Strong need for a sense of control
  • Neurobiological features
  • Demographic features
  • Psychiatric disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) or depression

3. Lifestyle factors

The following lifestyle factors, apart from work-related factors, can also contribute to the development of burnout syndrome:

  • Avoiding socializing due to work
  • Not managing enough time to relax to focus on work
  • Not getting enough rest and sleep
  • Taking on too many responsibilities at home, work and other areas of functioning
  • Lack of supportive and close relationships


All these factors can contribute to the development of burnout and the consequences as well. However, a 2016 study 1 conducted by Maslach and Leiter identified 6 major factors that may cause burnout syndrome namely –

A. Inconsistency and discrepancy in workload

Work overload is one of the major reasons for the onset of burnout syndrome as it greatly affects a person’s ability to perform and meet the demands of their job. “When this kind of overload is a chronic job condition, there is little opportunity to rest, recover, and restore balance,” explains the study.

B. A lack of or conflict in control

The study by Maslach and Leiter has observed a clear link between burnout and a lack of control. However, when an individual has access to necessary resources, professional autonomy and the ability to make decisions to complete a task effectively, they will experience higher job engagement.

C. Absence or lack of suitable rewards

Rewards help to shape the behaviour of a person at work through the power of reinforcements. “Insufficient recognition and reward (whether financial, institutional, or social) increase people’s vulnerability to burnout, because it devalues both the work and the workers, and is closely associated with feelings of inefficacy,” explain Maslach and Leiter.

D. Loss or a lack of a sense of community with others

Community refers to the relationships an individual shares with their coworkers and others at the job. If such relationships are affected by consistent criticism, unresolved conflict and a lack of trust and support, then it can lead to burnout syndrome. However, when employees can easily resolve disagreements and get adequate social support, it can lead to job satisfaction and engagement.

E. Perceived lack of fairness

Social justice and equity is crucial for everyone as it is one of the basic human rights. When job-related decisions are not perceived as equitable and fair, then it can cause a high risk of this condition. The study adsds “Cynicism, anger and hostility are likely to arise when people feel they are not being treated with the appropriate respect.”

F. Conflict between values

Values are often related to the cognitive‐emotional power of expectations and goals at work. Values tend to attract and motivate a person to stay committed to their work and helps in strengthening the connection between them & their workplace. However, a disparity between individual and organizational values can make someone burned out. The researchers explain that a conflict of values at the workplace can make a person “find themselves making a trade‐off between work they want to do and work they have to do, and this can lead to greater burnout.”

Overcoming Burnout Syndrome

If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing burnout syndrome, then seek help immediately. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about your thoughts and feelings or consult a doctor or a mental health professional. It is also important that you focus on self-care and pay close attention to your physical, mental and emotional needs.

Work-life imbalance and exposure to constant stress can lead to anxiety, exhaustion and isolation. However, by readjusting your priorities and practising good work-life balance you can overcome this mental state. Self-care practices, like exercising, following a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, spending quality time with loved ones and doing things you love, along with treatment, can help you relieve the symptoms of burnout syndrome and live a healthier, more positive life.

References:
  1. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311 [][]
  2. de Beer LT, Pienaar J, Rothmann S Jr. Work overload, burnout, and psychological ill-health symptoms: a three-wave mediation model of the employee health impairment process. Anxiety Stress Coping. 2016 Jul;29(4):387-99. doi: 10.1080/10615806.2015.1061123. Epub 2015 Jul 8. PMID: 26079200. []
  3. Vahtera, J., Kivimäki, M., Pentti, J., Linna, A., Virtanen, M., Virtanen, P., & Ferrie, J. E. (2004). Organisational downsizing, sickness absence, and mortality: 10-town prospective cohort study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 328(7439), 555. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.37972.496262.0D []
  4. Brian W. Swider, Ryan D. Zimmerman,
    Born to burnout: A meta-analytic path model of personality, job burnout, and work outcomes,
    Journal of Vocational Behavior,
    Volume 76, Issue 3,
    2010,
    Pages 487-506,
    ISSN 0001-8791,
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2010.01.003. []
  5. Bianchi, R., & Schonfeld, I. S. (2016). Burnout is associated with a depressive cognitive style. Personality and Individual Differences, 100, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.01.008 []
  6. Mustafa O. M. (2015). Health behaviors and personality in burnout: a third dimension. Medical education online, 20, 28187. https://doi.org/10.3402/meo.v20.28187 []
  7. Raja, S., & Stein, S. L. (2014). Work-life balance: history, costs, and budgeting for balance. Clinics in colon and rectal surgery, 27(2), 71–74. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0034-1376172 []
  8. Rao, T. S., & Indla, V. (2010). Work, family or personal life: Why not all three?. Indian journal of psychiatry, 52(4), 295–297. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.74301 []
  9. Maslach C, Leiter MP. Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry. 2016 Jun;15(2):103-11. doi: 10.1002/wps.20311. PMID: 27265691; PMCID: PMC4911781. []
  10. Aydemir O., Icelli I. (2013) Burnout: Risk Factors. In: Bährer-Kohler S. (eds) Burnout for Experts. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-4391-9_8 []
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