At age 32, Kelly Shaw* laid in bed ill at ease. This had been her eighth night of restless sleep. Perhaps it had been more nights than that, but she couldn’t tell; after all, if she was smart enough to climb the corporate ladder and reach a manager position by age 30, she could all too well recognize the serious effects of sleep deprivation on her memory. She didn’t know whether to quicker wish for sleep or for her mind to stop racing, or both. Whether awake or asleep, Kelly had what seemed like a permanent lump in her throat, a dry mouth that went unquenched, and frequently found herself in a constant mental fog. Sometimes, her heart would race so loudly, she feared her colleagues could tell as she tried desperately to calm herself. Her thoughts were preoccupied with worry and strain; with ‘what ifs’ and dread. At the end of each day, she stared at her ceiling, going through, in excruciating detail, every ‘faux pas’ she believed she committed that day – “Should I have complimented Michelle’s sweater, even though I am her superior? Would that make her think that I don’t value her intellect? When Mark overheard us talking, did he feel like he wasn’t included? Should I have made more of an effort to add him into the conversation? Does he think I’m favoring Michelle? What if they don’t take me seriously at tomorrow’s meeting?” Kelly frequently worried about how she was perceived by her work colleagues, pored over the status of her employment, was frequently irritable, and the dedication and care she so carefully put into her work had noticeably started to slip away. For the first time in her life, Kelly was experiencing job burnout.
With a US prevalence rate of 27.8%, “burning out” on the job is a very real phenomenon. Described as a prolonged response to job-related stress, which is characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, physical fatigue, and inefficiency, burnout can affect individuals from a wide range of professions. Burnout is not simply job stress, it is a particular strain which has dangerous consequences, from adversely affecting quality of life to negative health consequences—including impaired immunity function, sleep disturbances, an increase in musculoskeletal diseases among women and cardiovascular diseases among men.
According to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology, job burnout occurs because of a mismatch between our subconscious motivations and the demands of our job: For the study, 97 women and men were asked to fill out a survey about their physical well-being, degree of burnout, and information about their jobs. In order to look at subconscious motivations, participants were asked to spend five minutes writing stories describing five different pictures, one at a time. These pictures have been used in prior implicit motive studies and included various and disconnected cues (an architect, trapeze artists, women in a laboratory, a boxer, and a nightclub scene). Each story was coded for positive personal relations (thus expressing what the researchers call an “affiliation motive”) or influence (a “power motive”). The researchers then analyzed the coded data along with the questionnaires to find that participants with higher work demands had higher burnout scores and reported more physical symptoms. Further, participants experiencing a mismatch with the affiliation motive at work had a higher degree of burnout, and participants experiencing a mismatch in the power motive reported physical symptoms more frequently.
As the researchers describe it: “Imagine an accountant who actually is an outgoing person, enjoys being in company and seeks closeness in her social relationships. However, at her workplace, she most of the time works on her own with hardly any contact with colleagues or clients… And now imagine another employee, a mid-level manager, who is expected to take on responsibility for his team, motivate and supervise his staff members, find compromises between conflicting interests, make personnel decisions, in short, to influence on other people… When at his workplace, though, he is out of his element as he does not like to take center stage and actually feels awkward in his role as a leader…”
In Kelly’s situation, while her subconscious need for power was being met, having worked her way up to a management position, she was not particularly well versed socially, nor did she enjoy social interactions to the degree in which her job required. The strain and worry she was experiencing on the job was directly related to her colleagues and how she interacted with them.
So how can you determine what your subconscious motivations are, in efforts to keep you happy at work? Because our subconscious mind is not available to explore via introspection (only our conscious mind can do that!), completing a personality survey such as the BIG 5 inventory, which you can find for free online, will give you an opportunity to get a good scientific look at whether you tend to be more introverted or extroverted, which might indicate your affiliation motive, with higher extraversion suggesting a higher affiliation motive. A better exercise, however, may be to look at your past feelings and behaviors associated with job tasks – if you feel “power-hungry” but are unable to meet those needs in your job and, as a result, have felt exhausted or cynical, you likely have a power motive. If you enjoy being social and have a job that requires you to constantly be meeting new people, like a sales position, for instance, you likely have an affiliation motive and your job is unlikely to leave you burned out.
What this new research particularly shows is that the longer we stay in a job that doesn’t quite fit our subconscious needs, the more burnout we are likely to experience. A potential way to minimize burnout, given these new findings, might be to better customize job tasks to the subconscious motives of the professional, train employees to craft a working style which better fits their needs (preferably when onboarding), or more carefully screen for motives when initially hiring, in order to ensure a better fit for employer and employee alike. While these potential solutions may sound far fetched, remember that many workplaces are becoming more open and collaborative – the adoption of Holacracy as a management style being a great example of this. While not all (particularly heavily structured and traditional) professions could realistically adopt a model as flexible as an open management style, tweaks could certainly be made to any workplace by way of training or slight restructuring to minimize employee burnout, increase employee retention rates, and continue driving profits. For instance, new research shows that changes made in the physical workplace in and of itself can help change attitudes at work. In newly published research titled ‘The sound of cooperation: Musical influences on cooperative behavior’, researchers asked participants to cooperate in various ways while playing different styles of music; either happy music, such as “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles; “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves; “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison; and, the theme song from “Happy Days” or unhappy music, such as “Smokahontas” by Attack Attack! The results show that participants listening to happy music contributed nearly one third more than those listening to unhappy music. It would certainly be interesting to assess how the affiliation motive could be met by employees listening to happy music.
If you believe you may be experiencing burnout, but are unable to leave your place of employment for various reasons, whether they be financial, familial, or other obligations, one way you can minimize burnout is by trying as hard as possible to disconnect from work while at home. That means turning off your cellphone, not checking work email, and actively trying to take your mind off of work. Another way of minimizing burnout is to engage in activities which meet your subconscious needs. For instance, if you have a strong need for power, but are in a work position where you have little to none, volunteering for an organization where you can take the lead on an initiative will help meet that needs. Similarly, if you have a strong need to be social but work in an office alone, making a concentrated effort to see friends or engage in social activities outside of work will help meet your need. For the physical symptoms, meeting the basics – sleeping well, eating well, and exercising – are a good place to start!
Of course, more research on how to minimize job burnout for employees and employers alike is needed, in the very least, the “one-sizefits- all” model is not particularly profitable – in all senses of the word.
By: Mariana Bockarova