5 Surprising Causes of Burnout

Are you stuck in a job so demoralizing or stressful, you look at Sisyphus and think, “That doesn’t look so bad.” The Savvy Psychologist explains 5 surprising causes of burnout (aka, why you want to quit in a blaze of glory).

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #236

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.” 

Regardless of 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. Therefore, while we’ve talked about burnout on the podcast before, namely here and here, it demands another look.

To review, burnout has three hallmark symptoms. First, there is emotional exhaustion, which also bleeds over into physical exhaustion. With this symptom, dragging yourself to work takes heroic effort and being productive 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?”, “Idiots!”, 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 the domain of work. Folks who are depressed will still be depressed sitting on a tropical beach, but those with burnout often feel better once they’ve taken time off and are surrounded not by demanding customers and autocratic supervisors, but by palm trees, a stack of novels, or woodworking tools—whatever floats your boat. In other words, in depression, the little black raincloud follows you everywhere, but in burnout, it stays squarely over your work station. 

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 the other factors aren’t so clear. This week, we’ll walk through 5 surprising causes of burnout. 

Cause #1: Pressure to Achieve

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

But at a certain point, high standards hurt us. A study of around 200 young British athletes found that when the kids engaged in what’s called perfectionistic concerns, it put them on the fast track to burnout. These concerns included pushing themselves to reach overly exacting standards by their coaches or parents, or being made to feel like they weren’t good enough.

Cause #2: Pessimism

Not all burnout comes from external pressure. A study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences asked over 1,000 participants to read 24 short scenarios, six 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. 


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.