The hidden reasons behind job burnout

Otmar Winterleitner, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Feeling exhausted, depressed and unmotivated at work? Burnout isn't just about a nasty boss or grumpy coworkers, it may stem from deeper issues within, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the Universities of Zurich and Leipzig say burnout often results when your personality and inner motivations are a mismatch with your job situation.

Their study, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, describes job burnout as physical, emotional and mental exhaustion due to work. Typical feelings can include a lack of motivation, poor efficiency on the job and feelings of helplessness. Even more concerning, those feelings of burnout may be linked to physical health problems -- anxiety, heart disease, immune disorders, insomnia and depression.

The study's lead author, Veronika Brandstätter, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich, and colleagues studied 97 women and men ages 22 to 62 whom they identified through the website Swiss Burnout, where Swiss workers can turn for resources and advice if they're feeling fried by the jobs.

Brandstätter told CBS News that the scientists were interested in how a misfit between a person's individual needs and their job characteristics affect job burnout and the physical symptoms that may result.

To get a handle on their work environments and health, the researchers asked participants to complete a questionnaire about their physical well-being, the degree of burnout they were experiencing, and details about their job.

But Brandstätter said you can't measure inner feelings with a questionnaire, so they used a picture story exercise to delve deeper.

The researchers asked the participants to write imaginative short stories to describe five pictures. The images showed an architect, trapeze artists, women in a laboratory, a boxer and a nightclub scene.

The exercise is a tried-and-true tool psychologists use to help reveal people's inner thoughts and motivations, explained psychologist Curtis Reisinger, director of the Northwell Employee Assistance Program in Manhasset, New York. He was not involved in the study, but he works with health professionals who struggle with burnout.

"People don't always know what their personal needs are so you can give them pictures and tell what they're feeling or wanting based on the story they tell," Reisinger told CBS News. "It's exceptionally rare, if not impossible, to truly come up with something that isn't personally related. So you see something or are predisposed by either your history or expectations."

The researchers found that when things that motivated people emotionally -- as revealed through the storytelling exercises -- were at odds with the jobs they actually held, they suffered the most job burnout.

For example, someone whose story exercise reveals they're "power motivated," or highly interested in taking responsibility, but whose job doesn't give them the opportunity to influence other people, may feel frustrated and burned out.

The greater the mismatch, the higher the risk of burnout, said Brandstätter.

"The frustration of unconscious affective needs, caused by a lack of opportunities for motive-driven behavior, is detrimental to psychological and physical well-being. The same is true for goal-striving that doesn't match," Brandstätter said.

Physical symptoms, including headaches, chest pain, faintness and shortness of breath were also common when a worker was mismatched with his or her job.

The authors said that the financial burden from job burnout -- from absenteeism, employee turnover, reduced productivity and medical, legal and insurance expenses -- is "staggering." The American Institute of Stress estimates the total cost to U.S. businesses at $300 billion a year.

But many people don't have the luxury to quit a job that's a mismatch.

"People cannot always live up to their dreams and inner needs," said Brandstätter. "Definitely, there are times when people have to show self-disciplined behavior overruling inner needs."

But that doesn't mean you can't better your situation, she said, even in tough economic times when finding the best-fitting job may be more challenging.

"For example, we speak of 'job crafting' in which the employee initiates changes in the perception and/or execution of job-related activities to fit their jobs to their preferences and needs. For example, a highly affiliation motivated employee, that is, someone who is outgoing and seeks closeness in her social relationships, but in a job with little contact to others might handle her duties in a more collaborative way and try to find ways to do more teamwork," Brandstätter explained.

Making it work

When he works with doctors who are experiencing job burnout, Reisinger said, "We try to actually redirect them, change their expectations."

It's like relationships, he said. It's easy to romanticize a career or job path, but a few years down the road, the romance fizzles. One of the most common phrase Reisinger said he hears is, "It's not what I signed up for."

"They have to have some hope. Some people have a mundane job, but as long as you can make your job a bit of a challenge, shift your mindset, you can get some satisfaction out of it."

For example, he said people who work in call centers can get burned out doing the same thing call after call, but if they turn it into a competition with colleagues -- who can make the most calls, or make the most sales -- it may make it a little more engaging and fun.

In today's health care environment, he said a lot of doctors feel that they're just rushing from one patient to the next without any quality time -- nothing like they thought the medical profession would be. And they're loaded down with paperwork.

"A lot of physicians are going for mindfulness training. So they can be 'in the moment' even though they only have five or ten minutes," he said. "For example, when you walk into the patient's room, instead of thinking about all 10 patients you've got waiting, you take a moment, study their face, look at their chart. Make a meaningful moment. Those types of things make your job rewarding -- they're the implicit rewards of the job."

The Mayo Clinic's website on job burnout recommends talking with loved ones, friends, co-workers or a counselor to help you find solutions and better manage work stress. Many companies have an employee assistance program that can connect you with a qualified mental health provider.

When a job is getting you down, adding regular physical activity to your schedule to get your mind off your worries and improve health is a good move, too. And getting enough sleep can help as well -- aim for at least 7 to 8 hours each night, experts recommend.

Reisinger says if switching to a dream career isn't financially feasible, pursue your secret passion as a hobby, to bring joy and reduce stress.

"The counter to burnout is engagement," he said.

  • Mary Brophy Marcus On Twitter»

    Mary Brophy Marcus covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com