Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Burned Out on the Job? New Research Shows Why

How the power and affiliation motives might be causing you long-term stress.

Stockpic/Pixaby CC0
Source: Stockpic/Pixaby CC0

With a US prevalence rate of 27.8%, "burning out" on the job is a very real phenomenon. Burnout is described as a prolonged response to job-related stress, which is characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, physical fatigue, and inefficiency. It can affect individuals from a wide range of professions and has dangerous consequences, from adversely affecting quality of life to negative health consequences—including impaired immunity function, sleep disturbances, an increase in musculoskeletal diseases among women and cardiovascular diseases among men.

According to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology, job burnout occurs because of a mismatch between our subconscious motivations and the demands of our job.

As the researchers describe it:

"Imagine an accountant who actually is an outgoing person, enjoys being in company and seeks closeness in her social relationships. However, at her workplace, she most of the time works on her own with hardly any contact with colleagues or clients... And now imagine another employee, a mid-level manager, who is expected to take on responsibility for his team, motivate and supervise his staff members, find compromises between conflicting interests, make personnel decisions, in short, to influence on other people... When at his workplace, though, he is out of his element as he does not like to take center stage and actually feels awkward in his role as a leader..."

For the study, 97 women and men were asked to fill out a survey about their physical well-being, degree of burnout, and information about their jobs. In order to look at subconscious motivations, participants were asked to spend five minutes writing stories describing five different pictures, one at a time. These pictures have been used in prior implicit motive studies and included various and disconnected cues (an architect, trapeze artists, women in a laboratory, a boxer, and a nightclub scene). Each story was coded for positive personal relations (thus expressing what the researchers call an "affiliation motive") or influence (a "power motive"). The researchers then analyzed the coded data along with the questionnaires to find that participants with higher work demands had higher burnout scores and reported more physical symptoms. Further, participants experiencing a mismatch with the affiliation motive at work had a higher degree of burnout, and participants experiencing a mismatch in the power motive reported physical symptoms more frequently.

The longer we stay in a job that doesn't quite fit our subconscious needs, the more burnout we are likely to experience. A potential way to minimize burnout, given these new findings, might be to better customize job tasks to the subconscious motives of the professional, train employees to craft a working style which better fits their needs (preferably when onboarding), or more carefully screen for motives when initially hiring, in order to ensure a better fit for employer and employee alike.


Brandstätter, V., Job, V., & Schulze, B. (2016). Motivational Incongruence and Well-Being at the Workplace: Person-Job Fit, Job Burnout and Physical Symptoms. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1153.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 397-422.

Melamed, S., Shirom, A., Toker, S., Berliner, S., & Shapira, I. (2006). Burnout and risk of cardiovascular disease: evidence, possible causal paths, and promising research directions. Psychological bulletin, 132(3), 327.

© Mariana Bockarova, PhD

More from Mariana Bockarova Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Mariana Bockarova Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today