Beyond Workload: 5 Additional Causes of Burnout (And What You Can Do To Support Your Employees)

Burnout occurs due to a mismatch or imbalance between an employee’s needs, capabilities, and expectations and what the job actually demands and offers.

October 15, 2022
Alyssa Birnbaum

When it comes to burnout, we are quick to cast the blame on having too much work. When managers feel like it’s impossible to lighten their employee’s workload, burnout feels inevitable and unavoidable.

However, burnout scholars Dr. Michael Leiter and Dr. Christina Maslach (2004) suggest that there are 5 other potential causes for burnout aside from work overload.

Based on their years of experience researching burnout and consulting with organizations, Dr. Leiter and Dr. Maslach suggest that burnout occurs due to a mismatch or imbalance between an employee’s needs, capabilities, and expectations and what the job actually demands and offers. The greater the mismatch, the greater likelihood of burnout. On the flip side, the greater the alignment, the greater likelihood of engagement.

Leiter and Maslach suggest there are 6 potential areas of imbalance that can cause burnout called the “Six Areas of Worklife”.

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values

The Obvious Cause For Burnout: Workload

As previously mentioned, work overload is often the most evident reason for burnout. When work is perpetual and there’s no time to recover, employees feel depleted and burn out.

Perceptions of work overload can be due to:

  • Having too many assignments and not enough time to complete them.
  • Working with patients or clients, which requires “display emotions” that are not aligned with their actual feelings (like smiling when upset, responding courteously when a client is yelling at them, or withholding feelings of despair when helping a sick patient).
  • Experiencing role conflict and feeling pulled in multiple directions (such as when two managers are asking for incompatible requests).

How to notice the mismatch:

  • Employees are falling behind on their work or spending extended hours working over weeks at a time.
  • Your employees are excessively complaining about or appearing drained from patients’ and clients’ mistreatment towards them.
  • Your employees don’t have time to take breaks (e.g., lunch).
  • You’ve noticed that there can sometimes be inconsistencies in the chain of command, as your employee navigates inconsistent requests from different managers.

How to help your employees:

Although it is not always possible to lighten someone’s workload, it’s important to spread out the work and support your employees as much as possible. Occasional tight deadlines are normal; the problem stems from perpetual, unsustainable workloads. If you notice that your employees are constantly barraged with work, consider hiring new employees, obtaining helpful resources, or training your employees to navigate their workload.

Recovery is essential as well. Encourage your employees to take lunch breaks and stop working after hours. After a big deadline with a heavy workload, demonstrate you appreciate their efforts by allowing them extra time off to recover.

If your employee is faced with competing requests, try to align with other managers to create a clear hierarchy. That way, you can manage your employee effectively, avoid conflict, and help support them with their work.

Finally, for jobs where your employees are interacting with others and they are suffering from inconsistent display emotions, listen and validate your employees feelings. They may not be able to react in front of a client, but they should feel supported internally.

5 Additional Causes For Burnout

Blaming workload as the sole culprit for burnout often overlooks some of the deeper-rooted issues that can trigger stress, exhaustion, and cynicism. Control, reward, community, fairness, and values are all potential areas that can cause your employees to feel burnt out.

1. Control

When employees feel that they lack control at work, it triggers high levels of stress and burnout. Feeling a sense of control and ownership gives employees the autonomy to pace themselves and manage their own work.

Perceptions of lack of control can be due to:

  • Not having the capacity to influence decisions that affect their work.
  • Micromanagement.
  • Not having direct access to the resources needed to do their job.

How to notice the mismatch:

  1. Employees are held up waiting for you to complete any step in their assignment or need to check in with you about every decision.
  2. Employees complain that they can’t directly access key material.
  3. You use invasive or punishing monitoring software on your employees’ computers.
  4. Employees don’t share problems they notice or feel comfortable speaking up to say something negative.

How to help your employees:

To give your employees a sense of control,  grant them more autonomy rather than overseeing each step of their process. For instance, set deadlines without constantly checking in, or allow them to create a project timeline.

Another important step is to remove bottlenecks so your employees can easily access material and resources.

Finally, consider ways to create a more supportive atmosphere so your employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions. Make sure that you’re not just hearing their opinions, but acting on them, so they feel that their ideas are put into action.

2. Reward

Insufficient reward or recognition causes employees to feel that they aren’t good at their job and feel incompetent. Although most people associate rewards with pay or bonuses, reward and recognition can vary.

Perceptions of imbalanced rewards can be due to:

  • Feeling insufficiently compensated for their work or not receiving the benefits or promotions that they feel they deserve.
  • Not receiving enough recognition for work efforts.
  • Internal feelings that they’re underperforming due to feeling depleted and overwhelmed.
  • Overcompensation. People who perceive that they’re overpaid might feel like imposters who don’t deserve their pay, or feel uneasy knowing that colleagues who contribute similar quality work are paid less.

How to notice the mismatch:

  • High voluntary turnover, with employees complaining about insufficient pay (or leaving their current jobs for similar positions at companies paying more money).
  • When a task is accomplished, you quickly focus your team on the next task rather than celebrate what’s been done.
  • Employees expressing they don’t feel like they’re doing a good job.

How to help your employees:

Ideally, compensation and benefits are allocated fairly. However, pay adjustments aren’t always possible.

An easy and accessible way to reward your employees is to verbally recognize great work and effort. Notice and mention it frequently to the individual in private (“I noticed you did a great job putting together that last report!”) and in front of the team (”Thank you, Angela, for managing a tough shift today!”). Acknowledging effort and celebrating wins are great ways to recognize your employees.

3. Community

Community is about feeling a sense of value and connection with other people at work. Supervisors, immediate teammates, and other work colleagues can all contribute to creating a communal atmosphere. Teams with a strong sense of community are built on trust, support, and teamwork.

Perceptions of lacking community can be due to:

  • Disrespect, mockery, or rude communication or behavior.
  • Employees feeling left out of activities or gatherings.
  • Competitive rather than a cooperative behavior on teams, which can stem from incentivizing individuals rather than groups.
  • Constant bickering or disagreements that generate personal attacks on individuals.

How to notice the mismatch:

  • Employees verbally attack one another on a personal level rather than cordially disagreeing on tasks or assignments.
  • Employees don’t spend their free time interacting or getting to know one another.
  • Employees form cliques within your team, and those cliques are unfriendly or distant to outsiders.

How to help your employees:

Creating high-quality connections within your team can help create a supportive community. Create opportunities for your employees to connect outside of their immediate work through team lunches, ice breakers, team building exercises, or holding the first few minutes of every meeting to catch up on a personal level.

If there are active tensions between your team members, you may need to take a more hands-on approach. Talk to individuals if you notice they are rude, confrontational, and not respectful. Make sure to align them with your team’s values and norms, and share the consequences of their behavior on both their individual teammates and their work. They need to be aware of how it’s impacting the team, and know that it won’t be tolerated.

It can also help to establish team norms and discuss, as a team, how to communicate, what people need, and what people expect to perform at their best. Finally, if tensions are high, you may need to bring in external support for training in conflict resolution.

4. Fairness

Fairness is the extent that people think decisions at work are fair and equitable. When employees feel that decisions are made unfairly at their company, they don’t feel valued. Fair decisions should apply to everyone, as they should all have the same access to resources and opportunities.

Perceptions of unfairness can be due to:

  • Inconsistent or biased decision making.
  • Inappropriate handling of promotions or performance evaluations.
  • Unequal distribution of training, resources, and support.
  • Feeling cheated, lied to, or deceived.

How to notice the mismatch:

  • Talk to your employees and ask them if they think there are areas for improvement in the way decisions are made.
  • Critically assess the diversity within your team and among the people who are promoted: are they truly representative of the available talent? Are people who are promoted all evaluated equally and objectively, based on numbers and accomplishments, rather than how much they’re liked?

How to help your employees:

Although it’s not always easy to know whether your employees perceive your processes as being “fair”, several steps can create more transparency in the way decisions are made.

First, write out your processes and decision-making criteria and share it with the team. When possible, provide explanations for why you made certain choices, so employees understand your logic.

Second, try to find standardized tools, scales, and procedures for decision making, making the process as objective as possible. Take out the guesswork or subjective opinions as much as possible when it comes to making decisions.

Finally, demonstrate that you’re making an effort to create a fair and equitable workplace. For instance, be open about the steps you’re taking to create a just work environment (such as listing out your procedures, explaining how you integrate feedback, etc.).

5. Values

Employees often look for companies or jobs that they feel are aligned with their values. However, employees can easily feel conflicted when their companies don’t act on their values or when certain personal values are violated. Those mismatches create tensions that can lead to burnout.

Perceptions of conflicting values can be due to:

  • Companies not acting on their espoused values.
  • An overemphasis on work output and quality rather than personal values.
  • Changing personal values over time (such as valuing family more once you marry and have children).

How to notice the mismatch:

  • Talk to your employees about their values.
  • If you conducted their initial interviews before joining the company– what were they most excited about? Why did they want to work at your company? Think about whether their job aligns to their values.

How to help your employees:

Values misalignment can be challenging to notice without talking to your employees directly. Ask employees one-on-one about what they value. Then, ask which company values align or don’t align with their personal values.  Once you learn their personal values, you can try to assign work that is meaningful to them, or make it clear how their work is contributing to their personal values.

It’s also critical to set the right expectations of the company’s values from the get-go. When hiring employees, don’t set unrealistic expectations about your work just to get them to accept the position - be honest, otherwise that employee is prone to feel burnt out or leave.


Workload isn’t the only cause of burnout. In fact, researchers share 5 other areas that could trigger burnout if the individual employee and the company “mismatch” in any of these areas: control, reward, community, fairness, and values. This post reviews all of the potential causes of burnout and shares how to notice the mismatch and how to help your employees.

If you want to dive deeper, the Areas of Worklife Survey allows you to assess which areas are causing your employees to experience burnout.


Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2004). Areas of worklife: A structured approach to organizational predictors of job burnout. In P. L. Perrewe & D. C. Ganster (Eds.), Research in occupational stress and well-being (Vol. 3, pp. 91–134). Oxford, United Kingdom: Elsevier.

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