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  • Joseph E. Davis Ph.D.

What's Really Behind Burnout

The roles of disposition, engagement, and self-efficacy.

What's Really Behind Burnout

  • More than half of younger workers report feeling burned out.

  • Besides organizational problems, burnout can also involve dispositions and the expectations we bring to work.

  • Beginning with school, the terms of success can virtually foreclose a self-efficacious relationship to work.

A former student was in town recently, and we arranged to have coffee and catch up. She is in graduate school, but during our conversation, she mentioned the experience of her friends who took professional jobs right after college. All, she said, are “miserable” and feeling “burned out.” None of them are working in caregiving or service occupations, the fields where burnout has been most reported, especially during the pandemic. And none is older than 26. Could such young people, I thought, already be so depleted and struggling on the job that they feel burned out?


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Apparently, yes. According to the professional services firm Deloitte, in its 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, 52 percent of Gen Zers (up to age 27) report “feeling burned out.” That number is even higher than for the slightly older millennials (up to age 40), of whom 49 percent feel burned out. Numbers for both groups rose about 5 percent from the 2022 survey, which came at the tail end of the pandemic.


That’s a lot of burnout. But what are we talking about? While the concept has changed over time and remains slippery, psychologists commonly define burnout as a job-induced psychological syndrome. Its core, constitutive feature is emotional exhaustion. It arises, they argue, from persistent exposure to unresolvable stress in the workplace, organizational failures such as excessive job demands, or a lack of appropriate resources or recognition. People experience burnout, in this view, because, as one sufferer reported, “work is grinding them down.”1


Of course, adverse features of the work environment can be alienating and emotionally draining. My physician, to give one example, quit (“retired”) last year because the corporate control over his medical practice had made it impossible for him to make decisions and properly care for his patients. For years, he told me, he had been trying to manage by working six days a week, even as the loss of discretionary authority and onerous record-keeping increased. Like a lot of clinicians, his well ran dry.2


Organizational challenges, however, though important, are not the whole story. We must also ask larger questions about the nature of achievement in our society. Occupational burnout is more than simply being overtaxed. It involves dispositions and expectations that people bring to their activities. If we ignore those factors, we miss an important reason so many people feel their work is pointless and they themselves are powerless.


The Antithesis of Burnout

To begin to understand the importance of dispositions and expectations, we first have to consider the condition or state most antithetical to burnout. According to Christina Maslach, the leading burnout researcher, that condition is “engagement.”3 Business consulting firms such as Deloitte, Gartner, and Gallup appear to agree. When they study workplace trends, they use “engaged” as the ideal and contrast it with forms of active withdrawal or psychological detachment. To be engaged is to apply oneself, to be enthusiastic, to be committed to work and the workplace.


The concept of engagement is helpful in thinking about a person’s relationship with an organization, but it is a bit too broad and formulaic to help us understand a person's relationship to work itself. Let me suggest the more interactive concept, encounter, which conveys both the ability to touch and be touched, to speak and be spoken to in one’s relationships, experiences, and activities. When we have a responsive relationship with work, we take an interest in and pursue the satisfactions and rewards, predictable and unpredictable, that are intrinsic to it—in serving this guest, making this presentation, writing this copy.


Our goal is to do the job well, gain skills, accept challenges, learn from our failures, and create new possibilities. In other words, we do the things or provide the service that give the work its value and excellence. When our work speaks to us, we gain self-efficacy.


We are at risk of burnout when we do not encounter our work, when we cannot find rewarding features in the activities themselves.


To repeat, the conditions of our work might be a big part of the problem. But it is also possible that we approach work in a way that virtually forecloses a responsive relationship to it.


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Why So Tired?

In reading studies about millennial and Gen Z workers, one of the more striking findings is how much they desire an encounter with work. They want to do something important and worthwhile, make a difference in their job, and experience themselves as effective in doing so. Work is all the more important given their relatively weak connection to other institutions and traditions. Encounters in other areas of life can make “working for a paycheck” more palatable.


Despite the desire, however, young workers’ “engagement” is fairly low, while “quiet quitting” and feelings of burnout are widespread. So is turnover. At any time, half of these workers are actively looking for another job.


What’s the problem? At least one source of trouble begins in the school years. During this time, students often learn to pursue achievement in terms of anticipated rewards that lie outside of the activities they engage in.


Many students, for example, report that in high school, if not before, the intrinsic goal of learning was heavily subordinated to extrinsic performative concerns, such as doing well on tests, seeking social approval, and competing with peers. A similar utility principle operated in the way they approached extracurricular activities. Leadership roles, playing a musical instrument, sports, volunteering, and other practices were pursued less for their own value than as means to building a winning college resume.


These extrinsic concerns—grades, college acceptance, and so on—are not bad things, of course. But when they become the overriding concern, then the essential point is lost. We can see this consequence in both the rampant cheating in school and the testimony of students who can find little real satisfaction or meaning in their day-to-day activities.


For many, their life often feels like a continuous hamster wheel. Fatigue is common and most students complain of being overwhelmed and stressed. In a recent survey, for instance, nearly 80 percent of undergraduates say they are experiencing moderate or high stress in their life. They stay constantly occupied, checking off the boxes on their to-do lists, but feel little control over their actions. As they see it, they do what they have to do. Alternatively, they get an early start on quiet quitting.


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The message about success in school is to focus on results, the payoff will come later. But if that message inhibits a responsive relationship to learning, then how will students be prepared to have an encounter with work? The old hamster wheel might simply be replaced with a new one.


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References


1. Jonathan Malesic, The End of Burnout. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2022.


2. Victor J. Dzau, Darrell G. Kirch, and Thomas J. Nasca. “To Care Is Human—Collectively Confronting the Clinician-Burnout Crisis.” New England Journal of Medicine 378/4 (January 25, 2018): 312-314.


3. Christina Maslach, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter. “Job Burnout.” Annual Review of Psychology 52 (2001): 397–422.

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