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It’s not you. Your job is responsible for making you feel burnt out

Research suggests our jobs may be causing a burnout epidemic.

It’s not you. Your job is responsible for making you feel burnt out
[Source photo: Ryan Cryar/Unsplash]

Burnout can happen to any of us. I know this empirically because of my research as a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. However, I also know this to be true because of my own personal professional experience.

The first time I grappled with burnout, I was working my dream job. Fresh out of business school and passionate about the company’s mission to make healthcare accessible for low-income families, I didn’t think twice about the long hours or the company’s self-described “baptism by fire” onboarding process. I was given a windowless cubicle in an old janitor’s closet and a huge assignment. Then, I was left to figure everything out on my own. At this company, employees were conditioned to believe that asking for help was a weakness, and I feared I would get sidelined—or worse, fired—if I didn’t prioritize work above all else. I was young and inexperienced, I just assumed this was the way the corporate world worked, and I was determined to prove myself. Soon all I did was work, travel for work, and dream about work (during the few hours of sleep I managed to grab.) Before long I was exhausted, disillusioned, and doubting my abilities. However, the other new hires seemed to be getting along just fine. “It must be me,” I thought. I didn’t know what else to do but grit my teeth, drink more coffee, and keep going.

The second time I grappled with burnout occurred many years later. I had managed to grow in my career, buoyed by multiple promotions, great colleagues, and access to more resources. By this time I was married with two young children, so in addition to work stress, I worried constantly about not spending enough time with my family. I took a leave of absence after having my third child, and despite being home with two toddlers and a newborn, I actually slept more and felt less stressed than when I was working. So when I eventually went back to work, I was determined to do things differently. My goal was to say “no” more often, work fewer hours, and insist on traveling less. That lasted until another promotion required even more responsibilities and travel. Soon enough I was right back to playing through the pain.

Honestly, I probably would’ve kept going if my body hadn’t forced me to reassess. During a routine physical, my doctor discovered that my blood pressure was so high I was in the midst of a “hypertensive emergency.” I’d learn later this was a life-threatening condition that could lead to organ failure, vision loss, a stroke, a heart attack, or yes, death. As I sat there insisting I was fine (and thinking that I needed to get back to work), the doctor called for help. I was given medication to lower my blood pressure ASAP and a strong dose of Xanax, and permitted to go home only if my husband picked me up and I agreed to go on bedrest. My doctors told me that if I had so much as a slight headache I was to call 911.

While I was confined to the couch, I finally had time to think and decompress. I realized that my work-related stress had increased so slowly and incrementally that it had come to feel normal—and how I had been operating in a numbed-out, autopilot state just to get by. Finally, I understood how severely burned out I was and that things needed to change drastically if I wanted to see my kids grow up.


As soon as I got the all-clear from my doctor, I went on a full-scale quest to regain my health. I started a fitness routine, learned mindfulness meditation, and told my coworkers I needed to drastically scale-back on work travel and working through the weekends. The irony was that I was already leading our new-hire and leadership-development programs and emphasizing the importance of having a healthy relationship with work. During this time, I added a lot of the emerging research on emotional intelligence (EI) into our curricula and I ended up learning as much as the employees did—especially about how the EI skills of self-awareness and self-regulation can help people better manage workplace stress.

But perhaps most importantly, during this time I also learned that I was not the cause of my own burnout. My exhaustion and disillusionment weren’t due to any sort of personal failing, lack of stamina, or inability to handle the grind, as I and so many others had been led to believe. Experts agree that burnout is actually caused by psychologically hazardous factors occurring at work.

In other words: it’s not you, it’s your job.

“Burnout in individual workers,” observes pioneering researcher Dr. Christina Maslach, “says more about the conditions of their job than it does about them. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the individual but the organization that needs to change.” Blaming employees for their own burnout lets organizations off the hook. It places the entire responsibility for remaining healthy and performance-ready onto the workforce. Maslach likens burnout to the proverbial canary in the coal mine: If the canary emerges from the mine having trouble breathing and functioning, we don’t blame the canary. We figure out what’s wrong with the mine.

This fundamental reorientation—from turning inward in an attempt to identify and fix what I assumed was wrong with me, to examining what was wrong with my work culture and conditions—inspired a radical shift in my recovery from burnout, as well as in my career. I left my job, went back to school for a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, and began conducting research in emotional intelligence, burnout, and resilience. Through my research and my work as an executive coach, I’ve now worked with thousands of people who’ve experienced and recovered from burnout, and I can assure you it cannot be cured by self-care, taking a vacation or even a sabbatical, receiving coaching or therapy, or completing further professional development. Each of these things can help manage stress or alleviate the symptoms of burnout, but they don’t last because they don’t address the root of the problem: the workplace conditions that are causing burnout in the first place. 


Burnout is a well-documented occupational issue that is on the rise globally and costs organizations up to $190 billion a year in absenteeism, lost productivity, and turnover. It’s characterized by energy depletion or exhaustion, feeling mentally distant from your job or having a cynical, negative attitude toward work, and reduced professional efficacy (lower productivity). It can happen to anyone at any stage of their career, even to people who love their jobs and enthusiastically go above and beyond. (In fact there’s evidence that more passionate employees are more susceptible to burnout.) Maslach and her colleague Dr. Michael Leitner posit that you will be left more vulnerable to burnout if any of the following workplace misalignments occur:

  • Your work demands exceed your capacity
  • You do not have the autonomy to fulfill your job duties in a way that’s consistent with your preference for when and how to get things done
  • You are not compensated in a way that matches your effort and time, or you’re not recognized or appreciated for your efforts
  • Your values are incompatible with your organization’s values
  • You are subjected to unfair, inequitable treatment in any form
  • You work with difficult or toxic people, or if you simply lack social support and connection at work.

The persistence of these imbalances between demands and resources can lead to burnout. Temporary misalignments will cause short-term stress, but when they’re ongoing they cause the kind of chronic stress that takes a toll on our physical and mental health and dramatically increases our risk of burning out.

This is why we need to reframe the way we approach burnout. Though I’m encouraged by the new emphasis on mental health and well-being in the workplace that has emerged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still too many indications that burnout is a systemic problem, deeply embedded in many organizational cultures. My former student Dr. Carmen Allison, now Chief Human Resources Manager at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, studied the effects of extreme stress on executives. While stress and high-stakes situations will always be a part of work, she notes, business culture lauds and even insists on high-pressure assignments as “an expected rite of passage.” Employees feel they have no choice but to endure this “trial by fire,” which is seen as a badge of honor. Eleven percent of Allison’s participants ranked their work pressure as higher than 10 on a 10-point scale, and many experienced severe mental anguish. Her conclusion offers a sober warning: “Intense pressure experiences were detrimental to the health and well-being, cognition, and focus of these executives and disruptive to the organization, causing irreversible harm to some of our most valuable human resources.”

This sad state of affairs is no different from when I was a consultant, and according to some reports, things are not improving for the newest generation of workers. A staggering 84% of Gen Z workers reported experiencing burnout in 2022, and 40% of them believe burnout is an inevitable part of success.

Clearly, systemic change is in order, and it’s not going to happen by blaming employees for their own burnout and expecting them to recover in the same environment that’s causing their chronic stress.


To address the burnout epidemic, we need change on an organizational level, spearheaded by leaders committed to creating work environments that provide the conditions employees need to flourish and to perform at their best—without facing the risk of burning out. I call these burnout immunity cultures. Here are seven ways leaders can start building them.

  1. Listen to your employees. Find out what they need to support their best performance and to reduce stressors at work. Town halls, surveys, feedback sessions, focus groups, and one-on-ones are all valuable ways to learn what is at the root of their burnout.
  2. Act on their input. All that listening does little good if you don’t implement their suggestions. Acquire the resources they ask for, rewrite organizational policies that don’t support their performance, give them sufficient time to recover from the stresses of work, and remove the barriers they identify.
  3. Wherever possible, relinquish control and allow employees more autonomy. Involve workers in decision-making, and enable them to take ownership of initiatives and affect outcomes.
  4. Model and encourage the behavior you want to see. Be a source of optimism and support through challenging circumstances; maintain open channels of communication; immediately shut down toxic behaviors (such as unfair treatment, harassment, disrespect, and unethical acts); and preserve healthy workplace boundaries by not expecting employees to work after hours—nor doing so yourself.
  5. Set clear expectations about upcoming work surges and help employees manage them. Let them know exactly what will be expected, and when.
  6. Validate people’s feelings and acknowledge the sacrifices they are making, especially when they’re experiencing a big organizational change or are expected to do more with fewer resources.
  7. Help employees connect to the organization’s purpose. Clearly communicate your mission so employees can see the greater vision as well as how their day-to-day efforts are supporting it and making an impact. Celebrate individual and collective wins to help people focus on their positive impacts.

Instead of trying to help burned-out employees recover, only to send them back into the same work environment that drained them of their vitality, motivation, and effectiveness to begin with, let’s figure out what’s wrong with the mine. The best way to eradicate burnout is to prevent it from developing in the first place.

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Kandi Wiens is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the author of the forthcoming book Burnout Immunity: How Emotional Intelligence Can Help You Build Resilience and Heal Your Relationship with Work (HarperCollins, 2024). A nationally known researcher and speaker on burnout, emotional intelligence, and resilience, she developed the Burnout Quiz to help people understand if they’re at risk of burning out. More

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