The three types of job burnout


(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Disengaged workers outnumber their happy coworkers by two to one. Employers call workplace stress the No. 1 lifestyle risk. And CareerBuilder.com says one in five workers plans to change jobs in 2014, the highest ratio since the recession ended.

After years of layoffs, budget cuts and greater demands on those left behind, the American workplace has become a petri dish for burnout syndrome. For managers, it’s often easy to spot: People turn cynical, slow and ineffective. Their work quality slips, and they check out in meetings and appear disengaged. Once ambitious and energetic, they’re less willing to go above and beyond.

Pinpointing what’s causing it, however, can be harder to do. There are actually three different subtypes of burnout—“frenetic” (feeling overloaded with work's demands or commitments), “under-challenged” (feeling a lack of development), and “worn-out” (wanting to give up and neglect one’s duties). A new research study recently published in the online journal PLOS One might make it easier for managers to know what’s wrong with their fatigued employees by matching primary coping strategies to these three burnout types.

A research team led by Jesus Montero-Marin of the University of Zaragoza in Spain surveyed 429 professional university employees about whether they feel stress at work and how they deal with it. The subjects were asked to identify what they did to cope with these types of burnout, with possible options including everything from venting and distraction to denial and substance abuse. (The latter, unsurprisingly, was chosen least often.) The researchers then found a pattern between the types of burnout and the coping strategies people used.

Feeling overworked, for instance, was most associated with venting of emotions—complaining and kvetching about the pile of work to do. The next most common ways of dealing with overload were to focus on solving the problem (which the paper says could explain why people suffering from frenetic burnout often still remain quite productive) and, interestingly, to turn to religion.

The worn-out subtype only showed a significant correlation with employees who reported “behavior disengagement,” or neglecting or abandoning their work.

Meanwhile, those who said they felt under-challenged at work did a lot of both venting and neglecting—a sign, the paper says, that this type of burnout holds a “middle position between the extremes.” That said, the most common coping strategy for this was what the researchers called “cognitive avoidance,” or distancing themselves from people or situations at work.

Does this mean that employees who no longer talk about their kids all the time or participate in every social outing at work just need a good stretch assignment? Or that those who vent their emotions are definitely too maxed out on the job? Not necessarily, of course. But particularly when it comes to former stars whose performance has slipped, it could be a starting point for figuring out who’s feeling burnout, what kind of fatigue they’re experiencing and what might be causing it in the first place.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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