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4 Unexpected Causes of Burnout

This is why you’re hitting the wall.

Are you stuck in a job so demoralizing or draining that, by comparison, a root canal doesn’t seem so bad? Here are four unexpected causes of burnout (a.k.a, causes of fantasies of tossing a lit match at your cubicle while you stride away in super slo-mo.)

Like a tomato, which could arguably be a fruit or a vegetable, burnout can arguably be a diagnosable disorder or not. While it’s not recognized as a disorder in the U.S., it is in Sweden and it makes an appearance in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) as a “state of vital exhaustion.”

But whether you call it burnout or vital exhaustion, it’s a state known to many of us, and it ravages the body, contributing to everything from hypertension to substance abuse.

So how do you know if you’re teetering on the brink of burnout? Burnout has three distinct symptoms. First, there is emotional exhaustion, which also bleeds over into physical exhaustion. With this symptom, dragging yourself to work takes heroic effort and getting your to-do list done is out of the question.

Next is reduced personal accomplishment, which is exactly what it sounds like. It takes more effort to get less done, and you wonder what the point is anyway. Even successes feel like the equivalent of a dead-eyed, slack-jawed sarcastic confetti toss.

The last symptom, depersonalization, is being cynical, critical, and resentful with co-workers and clients. If you frequently mutter, “What is with these people?”, “Morons!”, or any number of NSFW labels, you may be on your way to depersonalization.

All of this may sound eerily similar to depression, but burnout is distinct in that it’s constrained to one domain, most often work or caregiving. Folks who are depressed will still be depressed sitting poolside, umbrella-topped drink in hand, but those with burnout often feel better once they’ve taken time off and are face-to-face not with demanding customers and autocratic supervisors, but by a serene lake, their vegetable garden, or their guitar—whatever floats your boat. In other words, with depression, the little black raincloud follows you everywhere, but with burnout, it stays squarely over your workspace.

And while it’s normal to have ambivalent feelings about work, look at job listings over your lunch break, or fantasize about taking a baseball bat to the unruly printer (“PC load letter?!”), you know you’ve crossed a line if burnout symptoms interfere with your best efforts to function.

So what causes burnout? Some of the contributors are intuitive: a never-ending avalanche of tasks, a toxic work environment, or all work and no life. It makes sense that you’d feel drained by a boss who tells you to work through pain, a coach that sprays angry spittle in your face, or a colleague who has loud phone conversations about her sex life while you pick up the slack.

But other factors aren’t so clear. Therefore, let’s walk through four surprising causes of burnout.

1. Pressure to perform.

Oftentimes, when bosses, teachers, or coaches hold high standards, we rise to the occasion and meet them. We achieve because someone believed we could.

But at a certain point, our perception of other people’s high standards hurt us. A study of around 200 young British athletes found that when the kids engaged in what’s called perfectionistic concerns—which is pushing themselves to reach the perceived sky-high standards of their coaches or parents—it put them on the fast track to burnout.

In the work world, this might translate to trying to please an overly demanding boss. A client of mine suffering from burnout likes to say, “No good deed goes unpunished,” meaning when she turns in good work, the bar gets raised or the goalposts get moved, and even more is expected of her.

However, we might also burn out working for a boss we perceive as being overly demanding.

Sometimes the pressure is overt. But sometimes our internal drill sergeant assumes our boss, our supervisor, or our academic advisor expects us to move heaven and earth, when really the pressure is coming from our own heads. If you know you have a tendency to lean perfectionistic, intense, or extremely conscientious, take a step back and question how much of the pressure is overt, and how much comes from your own internal cattle prod.

2. Pessimism.

A tendency to see the world through gray-colored glasses is, it turns out, a red flag for burnout. In a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, more than 1,000 participants were asked to read 24 short scenarios, 6 of which were job-related, and all of which were ambiguous—they could be interpreted positively or negatively. It’s the same principle as the duck-bunny drawing, or the young lady-old lady optical illusion, except in words. For example, “You are going to see a very good friend at the station. You haven’t seen them for years. You feel emotional, thinking about how much they might have changed.”

Next, participants were asked to rate how pleasant each scene was in their mind’s eye. So an image of feeling anxious and sad about how the friend might have changed would rate lower, while an image of feeling excited and affectionate about the arriving friend might be rated higher. Because all the scenarios were ambiguous, unpleasant ratings reflected a tendency to see the glass as half empty, while pleasant ratings reflected a tendency to see the glass as half full.

And what do you know? Turns out that pessimistic interpretations—seeing the glass as half empty—coupled solidly with burnout.

3. Mindless scrolling through social media.

After you’ve Marie Kondo-ed your clothes and pondered whether or not that table tennis set “sparks joy,” it’s time to turn to your online life at work.

A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that social media use at work tends to increase burnout in individuals who are lower in mindfulness. But for those who have higher levels of mindfulness, social media was actually a burnout buffer. So take a page from the digital minimalism movement, Kondo your social media time by using only the technology you love, use it deliberately, and—ta-da!—you’ll stay socially connected and fight burnout in the process.

4. Feeling alone, but not in the way you’d think.

It’s unsurprising that people we trust and care about—a.k.a. “social support”—would be helpful in preventing burnout, but it is surprising that support is not a cure-all. A study from Wayne State University looked at prison guards and found that, counterintuitively, the support of family and friends didn’t impact burnout at all. What did? It depends: coworker support went along with lower depersonalization. But supervisor support took a bite out of emotional exhaustion.

The take-home? Just like burnout isn’t one monolithic thing, neither is support. Just like you wouldn’t use a coffee maker to make bread (though apparently, you can use it to steam broccoli), it’s important to match social support to your particular needs. Build as wide a social support circle as you feel you need, from your sister-in-law who understands family dynamics, to your mentor at work you can always ask for advice, to the college friends who will always be your biggest fans.

Burnout has many more causes than just the four listed here, but suffice it to say burnout comes from both your external work environment and your internal wiring, with many degrees of depletion, devaluation, and wondering why on earth you work here.

Believe it or not, that’s actually good news. With many causes, there are many ways to combat it. Even better? Not all of them involve a baseball bat and that unruly printer.

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More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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