Is Your Boss Causing Your Burnout?


Burnout is an epidemic. The World Health Organization recently sounded the alarm, upgrading burnout from a general state of exhaustion to a definable syndrome. In a Gallup survey of over 7,500 workers, 23% reported feeling burned out very often, while another 44% said they felt burned out sometimes.

When it comes to solutions, we tend to focus on our self. What can we do to alleviate the signs and symptoms? Take more breaks, work less, exercise, and spend time in nature. We wrote an entire book outlining many of these items. And they’re worthwhile. But when it comes to burnout, like almost every issue, the causes reach far beyond what we can control.

In the same Gallup survey, the researchers looked at the top five reasons why employees feel burned out. The factors that correlated most highly with burnout were:

1. Unfair treatment at work
2. Unmanageable workload
3. Lack of role clarity
4. Lack of communication and support from one’s manager
5. Unreasonable time pressure

Notice anything? They have more to do with how an individual is managed and led then the actual details of the work being done. While working smarter, taking strategic breaks, and the rest are beneficial strategies, they really only address one, or at best two, of the five main factors for employee burnout.

This may be a case of getting caught up in the details without addressing the foundation. Or in coaching terms, it’s obsessing over the sets and reps of the weight your athletes are lifting, while neglecting the big-ticket items of buy-in, motivation, and caring about the athletes whom you are you’re working with as human beings first.

It’s easy to see why leadership plays such a big role in burnout. Leaders set the expectations and culture. Subordinates also are too often forced to give away too much of their sense of control to the manager or boss. Their work schedule, projects, timelines, and decision-making are often handed over to the boss. The more the boss is a micromanager, the less autonomy the worker has. And from a slew of research we know that autonomy — a sense of control over one’s life and decisions — is a basic human need. Whenever we take that away, even in the smallest doses, we need to handle it with care.

The takeaway isn’t to stop trying to refine our work lives, getting better at adopting the stress + rest = growth model. That has value, just like a running training schedule does. But when it comes to the systemic nature of burnout in society, maybe it’s time to start asking if we should switch from focusing solely on the individual, and instead look at what the individual doesn’t have control over.


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