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

Cause #3: Isolation (But Not in the Way You’d Think)

It’s unsurprising that people we trust and care about—that is your “social support” in psycholo-gese—would be helpful in preventing burnout, but it is surprising that support is not a cure-all.

A study out of Wayne State University looked at prison guards and found that, counterintuitively, the support of family and friends didn’t impact burnout at all. What did? It depends: coworker support went along with lower depersonalization. But supervisor support took a bite out of emotional exhaustion.

The take home? Just like burnout isn’t one monolithic thing, neither is support. Just like you wouldn’t use a coffee maker to make bread (though apparently you can use it to steam broccoli), it’s important to match social support to your particular needs.

Cause #4: Mindless Social Media Consumption

After you’ve Marie Kondo-ed your clothes and pondered whether or not that fondue set “sparks joy,” it’s time to turn to your online life at work. 

A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that social media use at work tends to increase burnout in individuals who are lower in mindfulness—those of us who scroll through Facebook or Instagram as a distraction, filler, or when bored. But for those who have higher levels of mindfulness, social media was a burnout buffer. So take a page from the digital minimalism movement, use only the technology you love, use it deliberately and mindfully, and fight burnout in the process.

Cause #5: Income Inequality

This is what I mean by saying causes of burnout are at the same time intuitive—like, yeah, that makes sense—but also oh so intricate. A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined almost 24,000 people in 48 U.S. states and 30 different countries and found that income inequality contributes to burnout. 

Here’s how it works: First, when a country has widely disparate income inequality, that fact is just in the air—you can sense it—and the 99% perceive themselves to be deprived compared to their 1% counterparts.

Next, stable employment is sought after and valued—it’s a way to pay your rent, your car payment, and the grocery bill, but 49% of American workers worry about the permanence of their job. It’s well-established that showing up at a job you’re not sure will exist tomorrow puts you on the fast track to burnout—it’s easy to get emotionally exhausted and feel callous and uncaring if you think you’re about to be pink-slipped.

But if you’re working in a state or country with high income disparity, that context only intensifies the connection between job insecurity and burnout.

Burnout has many more factors than just the 5 listed here, but suffice it to say burnout comes from both your external work environment and your internal wiring, with many degrees of depletion, devaluation, and wondering why you work here. 

But that’s actually good news. With many causes, there are many ways to combat it. Even better—not all of them involve a baseball bat and that unruly printer. 

Man with burnout image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Medical Disclaimer
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 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. 

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