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Job Burnout: Definition, Contributing Factors, What You Can Do

Burnout is an important topic for leaders to be thinking about right now.  Because of the present economy, many organizations are finding themselves trying to accomplish equal or more work with fewer employees.  This translates to greater workloads and job demands, which in turn results in higher levels of stress.  Too much stress reduces employee effectiveness and puts people at risk for burnout.

What exactly is burnout?  Burnout is defined as a state of exhaustion where one is cynical about the value of his/her occupation and doubtful about his/her ability to perform.   This definition describes a few key dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and personal accomplishment/performance.  These three attributes describe burnout and tend to occur in order, meaning that emotional exhaustion typically comes first, which then leads to cynicism.  Performance is eventually diminished as an outcome of the burnout cycle, defined below.

  • Exhaustion:  the depletion of an employee’s emotional and internal resources.  It makes an employee feel like he/she does not have anything more to give to the job, because there’s nothing left to give.
  • Cynicism:   an attempt to distance oneself from the job.  Once emotional resources have been depleted, employees feel increasingly cynical about the value of their work and actively start to ignore positive aspects of the job.
  • Reduced Personal Accomplishment & Performance:  as an outcome of exhaustion and cynicism, employees feel much less effective in their job, and performance decreases.

So what causes burnout?  Many different things contribute to burnout and some of them are beyond your organization’s ability to control (e.g.., certain personality traits like “neuroticism” that make an employee more susceptible to burnout).  However, the good news is that many factors are well within your sphere of influence:  understanding each and taking action to deal with them will not only greatly reduce burnout, but in doing so will also contribute to employee retention and job satisfaction.   Below is a table describing the most common factors that contribute to job burnout.  Included are definitions of each factor and proven methods for dealing with each:

Contributing Factor 


What Can be Done?


The actual amount of work demands Sometimes little can be done to reduce workload.  Managers can delegate tasks but must also be aware of their employees’ workloads.  Job re-design and the use of teams can help reduce individual workload through collaboration.  Note: when building teams, it is very important to define specific goals & objectives, time-lines, and clear responsibilities at the onset. 

Role Ambiguity

The extent to which an employee feels unclear about her/his roles and responsibilities, and where she fits in to the bigger picture A lot can be done!  This is the easiest contributing factor to improve:

  • Employee surveys can easily be used to identify if, where, and to what extent role ambiguity exists.  Once identified, leadership can work with their teams and departments to collaboratively define and clarify what is expected from each employee.
  • Charts, graphs, guidelines, and other visual cues help employees define their position and responsibilities, and can be easily updated

Control/ Empowerment

The degree to which employees are engaged in decision making and the latitude they have when making decisions Organizational culture will have a great impact on the degree to which employees are empowered to make decisions, and culture is very hard to change.  However, there are methods for increasing employee engagement.  These include:

  • Establishing and using employee task-forces to tackle organizational issues.  For example, if role ambiguity is a problem in your organization, you could form an employee task force to interview managers and employees to write descriptions of specific positions, defining their functions, tasks, where they fit in on the org chart, etc.
  • Formal employee engagement programs can have a huge impact on the extent to which employees feel engaged and empowered within their organizations.


The extent to which employees feel supported by coworkers, bosses, and the organization When support is the issue, it might indicate deeper (and harder to address) problems such as gaps in values or perceived unfairness.  Support from one’s boss has an effect on workload, and coworkersupport can influence cynicism and feelings of personal accomplishment.

  • A strong way to encourage support is manager and staff training in communication and teambuilding, feedback techniques, and goal-setting.
  • To increase leadership support, the external viewpoint of an executive coach will often give leaders a deeper understanding of their influence and effect on others, which is followed up with developmental plans.
  • On or off-site teambuilding events can also significantly improve coworker support.
  • Organizational support can be improved when employees feel heard by their company.  This can be done using employee engagement or culture change interventions.
For a cleaner version of this table, go here.  Feel free to take it and use it at your next meeting to encourage a good discussion!
Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. (2008). Early predictors of job burnout and engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 498-512.

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2 Responses to “Job Burnout: Definition, Contributing Factors, What You Can Do”

  1. nia bonnie July 8, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    Dr. can you give me source for this article about burnout. i need it for make my mini thesis.
    please help me,

    Thanks before

  2. Robert Bullock July 9, 2013 at 1:48 am #

    Of course – much of this article was based on research by Christina Maslach (she created the Maslach Burnout Inventory). The burnout construct definition and contributing factors reference the article below. If you would like anything else don’t hesitate to ask. Good luck with your thesis!
    Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. (2008). Early predictors of job burnout and engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 498-512.

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