The person/role/organisation model
To reiterate, the cause of burnout is multifactorial. Burnout happens not because of individual weakness or a bad manager or overwork; it occurs when these factors and others interact with each other. The factors of burnout fall into one of three broad categories of the model:
Burnout happens in individual human beings. To understand burnout it’s important to understand what the individual brings to the party. All of us are complex and fallible human beings with a history of experiences from infancy that have made us the person we are. Some people are more resilient than others. Some people have personalities that make them more vulnerable to burnout than other people. If you have a personality characterised by high levels of conscientiousness and a low level of emotional stability then you are far more likely to develop burnout than someone who is laid-back and emotionally stable. If a person is suffering stress in their home life - perhaps their partner is ill or they are experiencing financial worries - then they are far more vulnerable to developing burnout than if their domestic circumstances were stable.
These individual characteristics all play a role in burnout. The problem is that many organisations, human resource departments and occupational health professionals only see these individual characteristics and miss the bigger picture - including the role that the person has to play at work and in the organisational culture.
Burnout is something that occurs in an individual, but only in the context of work. People have both formal and informal roles at work, and both can contribute to burnout.
The formal role is what the person is paid to do; for example, ‘head of marketing’, engineer’ or ‘HR director’. One of the most common factors contributing to burnout is a lack of clarity about what the person is expected to do and achieve at work, otherwise known as role ambiguity (Peterson et al., 1995).
As well as their formal role at work, people often have informal roles, such as ‘father figure’, ‘troublemaker’, ‘peacemaker’ or ‘scapegoat’. Our early life experiences pre-dispose us to take up these roles, and we are gently pushed into them by unconscious organisational forces (Obholzer & Roberts, 2019). These unconscious work roles can be the cause of enormous stress and contribute to burnout.
This refers to the culture of the organisation in which the person works. It also refers to all the external pressures on that organisation from the economy, from political events and generally from the social system within which the organisation has to function.
Many organisations are psychologically very healthy and take care of their employees. Others are not so good. However, when put under pressure from economic and political circumstances, even decent organisations can soon deteriorate into toxic environments.
For example, France Télécom (or Orange SR, as it was then known) was facing an existential crisis in 2005. It was losing money hand over fist and needed to make redundancies. However, because of the strict labour laws in France, it found making people redundant to be almost impossible. It reacted by making the organisation an extremely unpleasant place to work for the people it wanted to get rid of. The CEO at the time, Didier Lombard, was famously reported to have told a meeting of managers in 2006, “I will get people to leave one way or another, either through the window or the door.” Which, very tragically, is what happened. The company was hit by a wave of employee suicides that were directly attributed to the culture of bullying started by the CEO. In 2019, three executives from the company, the CEO (Lombard), his deputy and the director of human resources, were jailed because of their behaviour.
Bringing it all together
Anti-burnout is structured in-line with the three parts of the person/role/ organisation model.
I describe in more detail the personal, individual factors that make people more or less vulnerable to burnout. I also talk about what individuals can do to ‘inoculate’ themselves to prevent burnout.
I go on to describe the role the person plays in the organisation - in other words, what their job is. I describe the job characteristics that contribute to burnout. I also outline some practical techniques you can use, again to protect yourself, but also, if you are a manager, to protect your direct reports.
The third and final section looks at organisational factors implicated in burnout. I explore organisational cultures both good and bad.
Burnout isn’t just exhaustion from overwork. It consists of:
- • Feeling a mixture of physical and mental exhaustion mixed up with agitation, worry and anxiety.
- • Experiencing work as being meaningless, a chore. Feeling cut off and cynical about work.
- • A noticeable decline in work performance.
- • Burnout isn’t just an individual issue it is an organisational and wider systemic phenomenon.
To understand and prevent burnout you have to understand three factors:
- • The person.
- • The person’s role.
- • The culture of the organisation.
Freudenberger, H. J. (1975). ‘The Staff Burn-out Syndrome’. Special Studies -Drug Abuse Council, Inc.: SS-7. Washington: Drug Abuse Council.
Keen, S. (1992). Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. London: Piatkus.
Obholzer, A. & Roberts, V. Z. (eds) (2019). The Unconscious at Work: A Tavistock Approach to Making Sense of Organizational Life (2nd ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.
Peterson, M. F., Smith, P. B., Akande, A., Ayestaran, S., Bochner, S., Callan, V.... Viedge, C. (1995). ‘Role Conflict, Ambiguity, and Overload: A 2i-Nation Study’. The Academy of Management Journal, 38(2), 429-52.
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