Agreement on Values: The Pivotal Issue for Burnout v. Work Engagement

Burnout is more about value conflicts than it is about work demands.

Yes, too much work is exhausting and exhaustion can lead to full-fledged burnout. But that is not the whole story. If it were, then the solution to burnout would simply be to avoid working too much. But it turns out that people can be engaged with their work even when facing major demands. And people can experience burnout while managing a relatively modest workload. The critical point is whether they believe in the work they do and whether they work at a place that believes in them.

Values are the ideals that shape how people invest their energy and how they act. At work, personal values are those ideals against which people evaluate their progress at work. They are the fundamental element for accountability: at the end of a busy work day, your values are what lets you know whether you’ve made a meaningful contribution. An exercise for reflecting on personal values is to imagine receiving a lifetime achievement award: what would be the most important points to be included in your acceptance speech.

Working in line with personal values presents serious challenges for anyone. It requires the ability to make a meaningful contribution and the ability to stay focused.

Doing that requires a clear idea of what really matters. People can go a long way in life without truly reflecting on their work values, leaving them with a passive, inconclusive relationship with work. A clear set of values is the first step towards an active control of worklife.

The other party in the values relationship is the organization. Private sector companies and public sector organizations espouse their corporate values in mission statements. Recently, organizations have posted their values electronically on their web sites and in print on their walls. More importantly, organizations express their values through actions. As Chris Argyris ( pointed out, values-in-action may support or contradict the espoused values. When supportive, the organization rewards people who further the espoused values, such as attentive customer care; when contradictory, the organization rewards conflicting values, such as cost reduction. Employees carefully monitor their employers’ actions. Consistency of espoused values with values-in-action is reassuring; contradiction promotes insecurity and cynicism: a core aspect of burnout.

The other critical value conflict occurs between personal and organizational values. When personal and organizational values are aligned, people believe in what they do. Contributing to the company means also contributing to your personal bottom line. Doing what feels important means advancing the company’s goals as well.

Work engagement is the ultimate outcome of aligned values. It certainly beats burnout.

Are your personal values active in your day-to-day work?

Have you had the experience of doing work that is irrelevant or contrary to your values?

Aligning values is one of the six strategies explored in depth in Banishing Burnout.

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