A new study shows that burnout occurs when there is a mismatch between unconscious needs and the demands you experience at work.
For example, burnout may happen to an outgoing accountant who seeks to make new friendships but whose job offers little opportunity to do so, or perhaps to a manager who does not enjoy taking center-stage or being in a leadership role. In both of these examples, there is a mismatch between the employees’ individual needs and the requirements on the job.
Burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion from work, which leads to a lack of motivation, low efficiency, and a feeling of helplessness. Its health effects include anxiety, cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, insomnia, and depression.
“A motivated workforce is the key to success in today’s globalized economy. Here, we need innovative approaches that go beyond providing attractive working conditions,” said Dr. Beate Schulze, senior researcher at the Department of Social and Occupational Medicine at the University of Leipzig and vice-president of the Swiss Expert Network on Burnout.
“Matching employees’ motivational needs to their daily activities at work might be the way forward. This may also help to address growing concerns about employee mental health, since burnout is essentially an erosion of motivation.”
For the study, researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland and the University of Leipzig in Germany recruited 97 women and men between 22 and 62 through the Swiss Burnout website, an information resource and forum for Swiss people suffering from burnout.
Participants completed questionnaires about their physical well-being, degree of burnout, and the characteristics of their job, including its opportunities and demands.
The study focused on two important motives: the power motive and the affiliation motive.
The power motive is defined as the need to take responsibility for others, maintain discipline, and engage in arguments or negotiation, in order to feel strong and effective. The affiliation motive is the need for positive personal relations, in order to feel trust, warmth, and belonging.
To assess these implicit motives — which can’t be measured directly through self-reports since they are mostly unconscious — the researchers used an inventive method: They asked the participants to write imaginative short stories to describe five pictures, which showed an architect, trapeze artists, women in a laboratory, a boxer, and a nightclub scene.
Each story was analyzed by trained coders, who looked for sentences about positive personal relations between persons (thus expressing the affiliation motive) or about persons having impact or influence on others (expressing the power motive). Participants who used many such sentences in their story received a higher score for the corresponding implicit motive.
The researchers found that a mismatch in either direction is risky: employees can get burned out when they have too much or not enough opportunity for power or affiliation compared to their individual needs.
“We found that the frustration of unconscious affective needs, caused by a lack of opportunities for motive-driven behavior, is detrimental to psychological and physical well-being,” said lead author Dr. Veronika Brandstätter, professor of psychology at the University of Zurich.
“The same is true for goal-striving that doesn’t match a well-developed implicit motive for power or affiliation, because then excessive effort is necessary to achieve that goal. Both forms of mismatch act as ‘hidden stressors’ and can cause burnout.”
The greater the mismatch between someone’s affiliation motive and the scope for personal relations at the job, the higher the risk of burnout. Likewise, adverse physical symptoms, such as headache, chest pain, faintness, and shortness of breath, became more common with increasing mismatch between an employee’s power motive and the scope for power in his or her job.
Importantly, the findings show that interventions that prevent or repair such mismatches could increase well-being at work and reduce the risk of burnout.
“A starting point could be to select job applicants in such a way that their implicit motives match the characteristics of the open position. Another strategy could be so-called ‘job crafting,’ where employees proactively try to enrich their job in order to meet their individual needs. For example, an employee with a strong affiliation motive might handle her duties in a more collaborative way and try to find ways to do more teamwork,” said Brandstätter.
The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.