Sharing Burnout

With job burnout, at least you have company.

Both research and observation confirm that the experience of burnout is not randomly distributed about an organization. It tends to cluster. Some work units report a lot of exhaustion and discouragement while others have a much brighter view of their work.

The Work Itself

One explanation is the nature of the work. Some work units have gruelling schedules. The work keeps coming at a rate that prevents people from pacing their energy throughout the day. This rate could reflect a crisis situation causing a peak in demand or chronic underfunding of an ongoing need. In either case, the demand outstrips the emotional, mental, and physical capacities of many employees.

The Management

Demanding work situations can be managed poorly. With a thoughtful approach to staff scheduling or wait times, a major flow of demand could be paced in ways that employees could sustain over the long run. Poorly managed workflows wear out people. Manage is responsible for important areas of worklife, such as participative decision making, rewards systems, and justice. Most importantly, managing worklife that supports employees’ professional values will be more engaging. Overall, in a poorly managed work unit, employees will experience more signs of burnout.

Emotional Contagion

People pick up the emotional tone of those around them. If a worksetting becomes dominated by discouragement or cynicism, others will share those feelings. In contrast, if a worksetting becomes dominated by excitement and enthusiastic involvement in the work, that will reverberate among people as well.

The bottom line: Burnout is always a shared experience to some extent. Focusing solely on one individual may miss opportunities for developing the workgroup.

For More on Burnout

Burnout: the topic your boss doesn’t want to talk about


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    Thank you again for this illustrative synthesis of a so complex problem.

    I’ve seen how people who have developed burnout keep the negative attitude and their exclusive scope on negative events. The other members of the group get exhausted tryng to see the positive aspects of work, first as a mechanism of defense of their beliefs and values implicated in work, and after that, to maintain their selfsteem. Until a generalized problem emerges and seems to give the reason to burnout affected’s negative statements. Emotional contagion yes, and also a loose of awarenes about risk factors and a rational analysis of work conditions. One thing leads to another.

  2. Heriberto
    Another point about the shared quality of burnout is that the most effective solutions will be shared solutions. Rather than sending people away for individual treatment, it’s more effective to build an engaging workplace culture.

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