How to Predict Employee Burnout

Work can be stressful sometimes.

It isn’t necessarily always a bad thing.

Most of the problems come when stress is experienced repeatedly over time. This “chronic stress” reduces productivity at work, and leads to a wide variety of health problems ranging from sleep disturbances to reduced appetite.

When these problems keep building up, some people eventually burn out.


But why do some people burn out, while others don’t?



3 Kinds of Burnout

There are a few different ways that a person can feel burned out.

3 of the main ones are:

  • Exhaustion: Feeling overly tired or fatigued
  • Cynicism: Becoming cynical or disengaged
  • Ineffectiveness: Feeling ineffective, underachieving, or unsuccessful


One impressive study of burnout followed more than 4000 employees over the course of 12 years.

It’s important to note that they didn’t see an overall trend toward people burning out. In fact, the average levels of exhaustion and cynicism actually went down somewhat over time.

But some people still burned out.


Burnout seems to “spill over”

Burnout in one area often leads to burnout in others.

Some people felt a little bit exhausted, a little bit cynical, a little bit ineffective. They didn’t seem to get worse over time.


The biggest changes happened among people who were burned out in one area more than others.

The problems from one area slowly spilled over into the other two.


For example, someone who started out feeling very exhausted by work but wasn’t very cynical, was much more likely to became cynical over the years.

Likewise, someone who started out feeling cynical but wasn’t very exhausted by work, was much more likely to find their work exhausting over time.


Effects of management

Management styles influence different areas of burnout.

Exhaustion and cynicism were most heavily influenced by communication. Poor communication and lack of transparency did the most damage.

Feelings of ineffectiveness were influenced most by unpredictable or overly rigid delegation of tasks. It’s hard to feel effective when you don’t know what comes next, or have little say about how to perform your work.


Addressing a single problem won’t always be very effective.

Leadership can effectively prevent employee burnout, especially when managers are authentic.


However, it’s important to realize that fixing one issue might only have a temporary effect.

If there is another problem that hasn’t been addressed, the resulting burnout will eventually “spill over” into every area.



Image credits: Florian Simeth, darkday, Brett Neilson

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