• Westwood International

Underlying Causes of Burnout, and What You Can Do to Eliminate Them

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

“Building engagement is the best approach to preventing burnout. People who are engaged with their work are better able to cope with the challenges they encounter, and thus are more likely to recover from stress.”

-Christina Maslach

German-born psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first used "burnout" to describe a

"state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life," which can

lead to cynicism and lack of engagement at work. Extreme cases of burnout can result

in an inability to complete regular day-to-day work activities.

If you're concerned with the emotional and physical health of your workplace, as well as

its effectiveness and productivity, it may be time to a look at the underlying causes of

employee burnout — and what you might do to eliminate them.

Underlying causes of employee burnout

Employee burnout is generally characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced

effectiveness. It can take a major toll on the psychological well-being and physical

health of your staff, as well as their work performance.

In "Burnout and Engagement in the Workplace: New Perspectives", Christina Maslach

reveals a framework of contributing factors of burnout she calls The Maslach Burnout

Inventory. It consists of six “domains”:

1. Workload

2. Control

3. Reward

4. Community

5. Fairness

6. Values

Addressing burnout generally at your workplace means taking each of these causal

areas on with effective solutions.

What you can do to avoid burnout

Your ultimate aim should be to make your people feel more engaged with your mission,

more excited by your vision, and more willing to aspire to one while achieving the other.

Creating a better sense of community, while reducing work-related stress, will not only

help you achieve your overall aim, it can also help you avoid employee burnout and its

attendant problems.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory makes an excellent framework for sorting out possible

solutions to burnout. Consider:

Overwhelming Workload — unrealistic expectations, conflicting priorities, lack of skills or

inclination for certain types of work. Try . .

● Setting clear priorities and goals for team members.

● Being realistic about project timelines and chances of success.

● Managing employee workloads carefully.

● Scheduling regular checks of progress.

Lack of Control — not possessing proper authority or control over resources needed to

do the assigned job, project, or task. Try . .

● Matching tasks to skills and likes wherever possible.

● Outlining exactly what’s expected.

● Being understanding if staff need additional training or support.

● Keeping an open line of communication, and getting regular feedback from direct


Insufficient Rewards — balance between offering reasonable salaries (and benefits)

and recognition for desired performance. Try . .

● Creating links between employee recognition and company values.

● Making it easy to provide feedback.

● Recognizing specific actions, results, and behaviors.

● Sharing stories.

“People thrive in community and function best when they share praise, comfort,

happiness, and humor with people they like and respect.”

-Christina Maslach

Poor Sense of Community — work environments that isolate; chronic/unresolved

conflict resulting in frustration, hostility, and lack of social support. Try . .

● Leading by example; getting to know your employees.

● Acknowledging important things happening in employee lives, e.g., birthdays,

engagements, weddings.

● Making time for events and team building, e.g., company trips, after-work drinks,


● Encouraging friendly competition at the office, e.g., pools, fitness challenges,

fundraising efforts.

Unfair Policies and Decision-Makers — workload or pay inequity; poor handling of

evaluations, promotions, and grievances. Try . .

● Establishing clear rules with transparency in implementing them.

● Focusing on better processes OR better outcomes, ideally both.

● Making an effort to understand employee expectations.

● Monitoring employee satisfaction continuously.

Conflict of Values — disconnect between personal values and the values of the

company; lofty mission statement disconnected from way organization operates. Try . .

● Making organizational values part of the hiring process.

● Leading by example; knowing your organizational values.

● Reinforcing organization values in communications (e.g., newsletters).

● Rewarding those who embody company values.

Your ultimate aim is to thrive

Enhancing engagement and enjoyment at work, while reducing work-related stress, can

greatly reduce worker burnout. As can addressing the important issues of workload,

rewards, fairness, values, etc. Even more importantly, taking these steps to reduce job

burnout can lead to what should be your ultimate aim: to thrive individually and as an


Greg Zlevor, president of Westwood International and founder of the Global Community

for Leadership Innovation, provides insights and experiences for leaders and high

potentials to help them become more valuable.


-- “6 Causes of Employee Burnout and How to Prevent Them” by Ross Brooks; Peakon,


-- "Burnout and Engagement in the Workplace: New Perspectives" by Christina

Maslach; The European Health Psychologist, 2011-09-01.

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