The Surprising Reason You Might Feel Burned Out at Work

It could have to do with a mismatch between your unconscious needs and your job description, researchers say.

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Workplace burnout has a lot of different causes: long commutes, horrible bosses, unrealistic expectations, the list goes on and on. But a new study suggests that one significant source of job stress isn’t necessarily a part of the job itself—it’s how mismatched your responsibilities are with your personality.

This may seem obvious. After all, why would anyone take a job that doesn’t suit her personality? But according to study author Veronika Brandstätter, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, it happens quite often. The problem is, she says, people can have perceived notions of themselves that don’t match up with their true, “unconscious needs.”

“People often choose a job because it fits their ‘conscious’ motives that are formed by social norms and expectations of others,” Brandstätter says. “For example, an individual with the self-concept of being a person of influence might choose a career as a manager, though the activities associated with a manager’s job do not provide the real affective satisfaction.”

So Brandstätter and her colleagues performed a study to see how people’s implicit motives affected their overall mental health in various workplace environments. They recruited 97 adults from a Swiss website for people suffering from burnout, asked them questions about their health and job responsibilities, and then gave them a writing exercise to tease out parts of their personality they wouldn't necessarily report themselves.

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The researchers focused on two important traits: the “power motive” and the “affiliation motive.” People who have a strong power motive have a need to take responsibility for others, maintain discipline, and engage in arguments or negotiation, they wrote. Those with an affiliation motive crave positive personal relationships, and want to feel trust, warmth, and belonging.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that burnout happened across all types of jobs—those with lots of power, those with no power at all, those that offered plenty of opportunity to interact with others, and those that didn’t. In other words, the main predictor of burnout was not one single thing, but the discrepancy between the job and a person's implicit motives.

The greater the mismatch, the higher the burnout risk. Mismatches pertaining to the power motive—how much oversight and influence a person desired versus how much they actually got—were even linked to an increase in physical symptoms like headache, chest pain, faintness, and shortness of breath.

"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,” Brandstätter says. “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.”

This is important for employer and employees, says Brandstätter, since workplace burnout can cause both financial and heath burdens. It can lead to absenteeism, employee turnover, and reduced productivity—and it’s been linked to chronic conditions such as anxiety, heart disease, immune disorders, insomnia, and depression. The American Institute of Stress estimates that burnout costs companies $300 billion a year.

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So How Do You Avoid This Kind of Mismatch?

First, think about about what types of situations you truly thrive in: Is it when you’re making new friends and forming close bonds with others? If so, you’re affiliation-motivated. Or is it when you’re making decisions and yielding influence over other people? That shows you’re power-motivated. (And yes, it’s possible to be both.)

Now, Brandstätter suggests, run through a sort of “fantasy exercise” when considering a potential new job.

“Ask yourself: ‘When doing my job, how would I feel? Would I experience intensive positive feelings, such as joy, happiness, and pleasure? Would it be possible for me to experience a feeling of strength and impact?' The anticipated experience gives us a clue whether the job in question might match our motives,” she says.

For someone with a strong affiliation motive, it’s important that you anticipate feelings of joy, happiness, and friendly contact with others while doing that job. If you can’t picture experiencing that during day-to-day activities, it may not be the right job for you. Likewise, someone with a strong power motive should hope to experience feelings of strength, and have the sense that they’re making an impact.

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That advice is only helpful, though, if you’re considering a new job. For those stuck in a current job that doesn't match their motives, Brandstätter recommends talking with your boss and colleagues about ways you might “craft” your position to be more in line with your needs.

For example, an affiliation-motivated employee who has little contact with others might find a way to work more collaboratively with coworkers. And a power-affiliated person who is frustrated by her lack of influence might take a leadership-training course or apply for a supervisory position.

Admittedly, Brandstätter says, there is one situation that’s not as easily resolved. “A manager required to take responsibility of a team but who does not enjoy being in a leadership role probably would have to change jobs,” she says. Finding a position that doesn’t require these traits could make that person’s workday more enjoyable—and maybe even improve their well-being overall.