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Why a high workload does not necessarily lead to burnout

posted Jun 11, 2015, 2:43 PM by Sanja Djordjevic   [ updated Jan 24, 2016, 4:41 AM by Taylan Bele ]
In a previous post, Sanja Djordjevic discussed how people report experiencing burnout because of a high workload. But is this necessarily the cause? Indeed, sometimes even working long hours can keep employees engaged, provided that they want to do their jobs, can choose how to do it, and they love why they do it.

I know a lot of people who are dedicated to their jobs and get the job done whatever the cost. They are passionate about what they do, and in doing so, they even change the lives of others. Take Elon Musk for example, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, who says that his reason for success comes from loving what he does and working hard - 80-to-100-hours-a-week hard. Yet for some people, hard work sometimes takes its toll. Instead of leaving them energized, engaged and optimistic, their job makes them fatigued, cynical and depressed. It is as if their battery has run out and requires a recharging. I am of course referring to burnout.

Whilst not everybody who works long hours suffers from burnout, there are some people who do. So why does a high achiever like Elon Musk work so many hours without experiencing any signs of burnout, whereas another person who works less hours does? Here’s some science to help understand.

‘Have to’ vs. ‘want to’ motivations

The popular notion of why burnout occurs tells us that it is a consequence of working long hours combined with a demanding job. At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make sense when you consider the example above. According to research, a common differentiator between feeling fatigue or enthusiasm has to do with people’s motivations. In other words: do people believe they have to do their job or can they say they want to do their job?
People who are motivated and enjoy their tasks are more likely to be engaged and experience less fatigue

As it turns out, being able to make this distinction predicts whether or not people will suffer from burnout. Research reveals that people who are motivated, have personally invested in a job, and enjoy doing their tasks are more likely to be engaged with their work and experience less fatigue. As Musk said: “It is loving what you do combined with hard work that leads to success.” It seems like he isn’t far off with his recipe for great achievements.

The secrets of job crafting 

At this point, you might be thinking that Musk’s recipe of “loving what you do” doesn’t work for the majority of people. Because, let’s face it, most of the time nobody is able to choose their own tasks simply because they cannot afford to be picky—bills have to be paid eventually. 
The good news here is that although people are not always able to choose what they do, they are however able to choose how they do it.

This is the main idea behind job crafting - a process through which employees change the meaning of their work by purposefully altering the aspects of their job. For example, seeking out more resources that aid in job success (asking for feedback or support from colleagues). Taking on extra roles that are enjoyable and challenging (helping out new colleagues feel at home in their work-environment). Even changing the nature or number of interactions at work, and altering the type, order, and number of tasks can all change the way people perceive their work. Employees usually need to be trained to learn how to do this, but once they do, they become happier, more engaged, and they avoid the risk of getting burned out.

The importance of purpose and a common goal

In addition to being guided in how to do a job, people should also be able to love why they do it. According to research, being able to love a job has to do with goals. More specifically, the type of goal affects the way a job is perceived. Employees are less driven by so-called hedonic goals (i.e., “What will be the most enjoyable thing to do?") and gain goals (i.e., “What should I do to get ahead?”), but are most driven when they are guided by pro-social goals (i.e., “What should I do to make us succeed?”). A pro-social goal is one that is most likely to be in focus when companies have a clearly defined vision and purpose.

Apart from being guided on how to do a job, people should also be able to love why they do it 

Consider the case of Jesper Ek, a mid-level manager working for Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company. Ek was put in charge of the diabetes team that was, at that time, dealing with dropping sales figures. The team showed an engagement score of 22% and a massive disengagement of 66%. After three months of working on understanding the team, Ek finally intervened by switching the teams’ focus from the hedonic and gain goals to pro-social ones. The team decided collectively on a common purpose: “To enable for people with diabetes to live their lives as unrestricted as possible.” This seemingly small change had a major effect. One year had passed and not only did the team achieve more sales and profit, the engagement levels were also raised to 75% and disengagement was down to 0%. This clearly speaks of the importance of common goals in increasing motivation amongst the employees, thereby preventing the chances of burnout.

Managers' role in increasing engagement

Jesper Ek shows the importance of having the right goal when engagement is low. Elon Musk is a prime example that a high workload does not necessarily lead to burnout. In fact, having control over how the job is done, working towards a pro-social goal and wanting to do the job are all factors that help people in being more happy and productive. Importantly, managers can influence all of these factors by relying on researched strategies. Apart from allowing employees to engage in job crafting and decide how they will do their work, they can frame the company’s goals to emphasize prosocial rather than hedonic or gain goals, and optimize aspects of the job that will help employees to want to versus have to do their jobs. Indeed, managers play a crucial role in aiding their employees to become more engaged with their work, and thus prevent the occurrence of burnout.