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The Surprising Reason You’re Feeling Burned Out

It’s not overwork—it’s a mismatch—that causes feelings of burnout.

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Woman experiencing burnout at work

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If you’re chronically cranky, anxious and depressed, you might be experiencing job burnout. Naturally, you blame the long hours, the unreasonable workload, or maybe that supervisor you’re none too fond of. But surprising new research suggests that job burnout can also be caused by a fundamental mismatch between our unconscious needs and our job role.

In the study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers from the Universities of Zurich and Leipzig looked at two key motives that play a role in the workplace: One is the power motive. That is our desire to do things like responsibility for others, to maintain order, to negotiate, even to argue, so that we can feel effective and powerful. The other is the affiliation motive, which is the need for positive personal interactions, such as chitchatting over a cup of coffee at the office kitchenette, that desire to feel a sense of belonging to a group. If there’s a mismatch between someone’s role at work, and their need for either the power or affiliation motive, they are more likely to feel job burnout.

For example, take a bank employee who is a very social person and enjoys close relationships with her peers, but she’s stuck in a back office working on tax documents, rather than interacting with customers and her coworkers. There’s a mismatch between her job and her higher need for the affiliation motive. Or consider the middle school teacher who has been promoted to a district training role. His salary went up, but if he has a low desire for the power motive, he might be very uncomfortable with the demands of his role—though others around him see it as an “opportunity”—and he’ll be at risk for burnout.

“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. 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,” wrote the study’s leading author, Veronika Brandstätter, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

To conduct the study, Brandstätter and her colleagues worked with 97 men and women who completed questionnaires about their physical and mental well-being, as well as details about their jobs, then had them write imaginative stories. This type of imaginative story was used, the researchers say, since it would reveal more of the subconscious than other types of self-reporting; trained coders then analyzed the stories. The study found that the greater the mismatch between someone’s job and their motives, the higher the risk of burnout symptoms.

The researchers suggest that this study could help in screening job applicants. But it can also help you if you’re in a job you’re not perfectly matched to. The researchers recommend “job crafting,” where you enrich your experience as much as you can to meet your affiliation needs. For example, if you crave more time with a team, look for ways to work collaboratively. Are there opportunities for mentoring or being mentored? Volunteer work within the corporation?

Burnout, the researchers say, is the erosion of motivation, so aligning your inner needs with your work can not only reduce your stress levels, but also give you a renewed sense of purpose and vigor.


Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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