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What really causes burnout?

Many of the books and articles you may have read make it pretty clear - burnout is caused by X and the solution is Y. Pretty simple. One cause. One solution.

But that is not what we heard in our interviews with people who burned out. There was no single cause of their burnout. There were multiple. And they varied by person.

We tallied what appeared to be the dominant causes from each of the interviews. Here is how it looked.

We also listened for organizational level causes. The below were the most prevalent.

In our interviews, a single factor on its own (e.g. unrealistic workload) rarely led to burnout. Burnout happened when a cluster of factors all occurred at the same time. It was these ‘burnout combos’ over a sustained period which tipped people over. These combos often came in three’s:

  • High workload + belief ‘I must endure’ + can’t switch off………...burnout

  • High anxiety about work + perfectionism + unsupportive boss…….burnout

  • Lack of boundaries + gives 100% at all times + lack of resources….burnout

It’s like fast food. The odd burger every so often is not bad for you. It’s when you consume a Cheeseburger Combo meal every day for a year that you get into trouble. Most of our interviewees ignored the combo’s they were consuming each day. They weren’t aware of the risk until they looked back afterwards and it was too late.

If you intend to work hard and perform at a high level, you’ll be fine. As long as you are not feasting on a burnout combo meal every day.

To check your current risk level, look at the lists above and check off any factors that you feel apply to you. How many do you have?

Zero factors - great (why are you even reading this post?) One factor – nothing to see here, move along Two factors – take note, your plate is filling Three factors – you’ve got a combo Four plus – you’ve overfilled at the buffet. Don’t pile anything else on Look at your list and ask, could I keep working with this ‘combo’ for the next 18 months? Would I want to?

If the answer is ‘no’, it’s might be time to make some changes.


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