Feeling Burned Out at Work? Study IDs 2 Key Reasons

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The old career-counseling advice about choosing a job that's a good fit for you is getting support from a new study: Job burnout may be caused by a "mismatch" between an employee's inner needs and the characteristics of his or her job, the study from Switzerland suggests.

For example, a woman who works as an accountant and is an outgoing person who enjoys forming close relationships may be a poor fit in a workplace if her job gives her few chances to socialize and offers her little contact with her colleagues or clients. This type of mismatch — between job demands and social needs — makes a person more prone to burnout, the study revealed. 

In the study, the researchers defined burnout as a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, said Veronika Brandstätter, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and the lead author of the study published today (Aug. 11) in the journal the Frontiers in Psychology.

The researchers found that it's important for a person to have a match between his or her needs for two key aspects of the person’s job in order to prevent burnout, she said.

One of the aspects is the amount of affiliation — or the level of closeness in the job's social relationships — and the other is power, which means the ability the person has to influence and take on responsibility for other people, Brandstättertold Live Science. [7 Ways to Reduce Job Stress]

A person who has a strong affiliation motive should have a job that offers this individual an opportunity to interact in a friendly manner with other people, she said.

A person who has a strong power motive should have a job that offers this individual the opportunity to take center stage and be in a leadership role, she said. On the other hand, a person who does not have a strong power motive would be more prone to burnout in a leadership position.

Hidden stressors at work

In the study, the researchers recruited 97 men and women ages 22 to 62 who were full-time employees and who had visited a Swiss website that provided information about job burnout.

The participants filled out online questionnaires about their background, job characteristics and physical well-being. To determine the participants' motives, the employees were shown five different photos depicting people at work, such as an architect, women in a lab and trapeze artists, and were asked to write a short, imaginary story to explain each picture. The researchers analyzed the participants' stories looking for descriptions of establishing or maintaining social relationships (the affiliation motive), as well as indicating impact or influence on other persons (the power motive).

The researchers found that when employees' personal needs and their job characteristics didn't match up, it acted as a hidden stressor. The researchers characterize the stressor as "hidden" because the employee isn't fully aware of it, Brandstätter said. [9 DIY Ways to Improve Your Mental Health]

The mismatch may not only cause job burnout, but may also influence the number of physical symptoms that workers report, Brandstätteradded.

Indeed, the researchers found that when an individual has a strong inner need to be in a position that involves having power and influence at work, but winds up in a job that does not offer these responsibilities, the employee experienced more physical health complaints, such as headaches, stomach pain, dizziness or sore throats.

People in jobs that don't match their inner needs can work toward making changes to reduce their frustration level and possibly make the situation better, Brandstättersaid. For example, an employee who likes social contact and is strongly motivated by a need for affiliation, but who has little personal interaction at work, might find ways to handle his or her job duties in a more collaborative way that involves more teamwork, she suggested.

Alternatively, an employee who is interested in taking on more responsibility, but is in a position where he or she has no influence on others, might seek out leadership training in order to apply for other career opportunities where this skill is needed.  

But not every work situation that may lead to burnout can be resolved, Brandstättersaid. If a person is in a management position but does not enjoy being in a leadership role, that employee will probably need to change jobs, she said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.