Build Mode Logo
Request access to A.Team's member-only platform
I'm looking for high-quality work
Request access to build with teammates you like on meaningful, high-paying work.
I'm looking for top tech talent
Request access to work with high-performing teams of tech’s best builders — to build better, faster.

The Psychology Behind Burnout (And How To Stave It Off)

Understanding how burnout works is the first step to managing it.

Shane Snow is the bestselling author of Dream Teams and Smartcuts. Currently, Shane is the CEO of the film tech company SHOWRUNNER, which helps filmmaking teams work smarter together. (Disclosure: SHOWRUNNER is an A.Team Customer.)

In the book Indistractible, behavior researcher Nir Eyal describes a scene in one of my favorite I Love Lucy episodes, which turns out to be the perfect example of the psychology of workplace burnout. In the episode Lucy and her husband Ricky get fed up with the state of things and decide to switch jobs. Lucy ends up working at a candy factory assembly line where this happens.

Chances are you’ve felt a little like Lucy here as she chases the chocolates down the conveyor belt and can’t keep up. Only for you and me, there’s no audience of people laughing and enjoying this. We’re just scrambling, doing our best despite the fact that we have so little control over the speed of the conveyor belt.

If you’re feeling burnt out, you’re not alone. According to Gallup research published shortly before the pandemic, ⅔ of workers felt burnout symptoms. That percentage is surely higher now.

But what exactly leads us to want to throw in the towel because we’re emotionally exhausted at work? I believe that understanding how burnout works is the first step to managing it. And I Love Lucy nailed it 60 years ago:

To prevent burnout there needs to be a balance between control over the situation and hook for the consequences

Gallup’s research says that the following were the most impactful factors for employees who experienced burnout:

  • Unfair Treatment
  • Unmanageable Workload
  • Lack of Role Clarity
  • Lack of Communication & Support from Manager
  • Unreasonable Time Pressure

Lucy on the conveyor belt, after her boss yells at her and leaves, has both an unmanageable workload and unreasonable time pressure. Even though her role is clear, it’s not fair to put her on the hook for the consequences when the conveyor belt is running like that.

So How Can We Help Our Teams From Giving Up When Burnout Is Near?

If there’s one overall principle to follow, it’s this: if your people are on the hook for the consequences and have no control over the way things go, give them more control or take them off the hook for the consequences.

For example, if a government decides to shut down small businesses in order to prevent people from dying, that’s just taken away control from those business owners—so the government should take away some consequences, e.g. by giving those businesses stimulus money.

Or if a company is struggling financially and employees are going to suffer no matter how hard they work at their jobs, give them more control over their situation by letting them get involved in making strategic decisions about their teams or the company (rather than just telling them to do their job).

These are not easy kinds of changes to make. But you don’t always have to make big, dramatic moves to give people more control or to reduce the consequences of things that aren’t in their control. Little things go a long way.

mission by
For people who want to build things that matter & lead great teams
Check out the latest stories from Mission — A.Team's newsletter for builders designing the future of work.
By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.