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What are the Root Causes of Burnout? 🔬 (Part 3 of 4)

Clue: It’s Not You, It’s Late-Stage Capitalism

So now that you’ve put your mask on first and have taken the time off to recover from your burnout, we need a lesson (and a little more emotional validation) on what’s actually causing everyone’s burnouts

According to a recent study by Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan E. Jackson of Rutgers, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University, the 6 root causes of burnout are:

  • Unsustainable workload

  • Lack of control

  • Lack of support

  • Lack of fairness

  • Insufficient rewards for effort

  • Mismatched values

If you think about it, none of these things can be controlled by any one individual - no matter how much time off they take or therapy they do. 

the real reason we're all experiencing burnout
Say it louder for the people in the back

These are widely systemic problems that happen at the organizational, industrial, and even macro-economic levels. Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report suggests that,

“While the world is recovering from the impact of the pandemic, employees are still experiencing record-high stress levels.” 

So let’s think about a few of the trends we’ve been seeing in the job market lately that may be contributing to these “record high” levels of stress and burnout:

  1. Jobs Still Aren't Secure 👷‍♀️

  2. Work Still Isn't Flexible 🏢

  3. Pay Still Isn’t Equitable 🤑

Jobs Still Aren’t Secure 👷‍♀️

In the Netherlands, nearly 30 percent of workers attribute their absenteeism to excessive workload. 

But why is our workload getting larger if technology is becoming more advanced?

It’s because layoffs are becoming more common (as companies continue to make record profits). So the scale of the work is still there (even if technology helps us a bit with productivity), there are just less people to do it.

In January of 2024, NPR highlighted that,

“Last year was, by all accounts, a bloodbath for the tech industry, with more than 260,000 jobs vanishing — the worst 12 months for Silicon Valley since the dot-com crash of the early 2000s.”

What’s funny is that all of these tech companies (think; Meta, Google, Spotify, Amazon) are extremely profitable. 

It's not exactly out of financial necessity that they’ve been forced to decrease personnel costs - especially at the “urgency” with which these layoffs are typically conducted. So if not for good old business optimization, what’s driving these layoffs?

The NPR article goes on to explain that,

"The layoffs seem to be helping their stock prices, so these companies see no reason to stop."

If the purpose of layoffs is to increase the share price, which in turn increases the wealth of the executives who hold most of the shares in these companies, then what we’re seeing here (puts on therapist glasses) is a fundamental mismatch in values between employees and the leaders who are making the decisions for them (especially decisions like layoffs that severely impact the livelihoods and wellbeing of regular workers).

why layoffs are the root cause of burnout

Job security (even in the tech industry) has virtually disappeared. Layoffs, restructurings, and collective dismissals are top of mind for everyone as we attend company town halls, performance reviews, and announcements of “big decisions” made by management. 

This insecurity can get even worse if you are on a working visa (which is very common in tech). The idea that, if you are fired, you only have three months here in The Netherlands to find a new role or be forced to move your entire life is terrifying.

Layoff data tech and media glassdoor

So, what happens to the employees leftover after these restructurings?

Well, not only do they have to reckon with increased job insecurity and a fundamental mismatch in values with management, they also have to take on an unsustainable workload as they pick up the slack from the people who were let go.

In addition to this, they probably aren’t being properly recognized and rewarded for all of the extra work they’re doing. It’s no wonder they go on burnout leave. Then, the employees leftover from that group start to be tightened with these symptoms (unsustainable workload + lack of recognition) even further. They also go on burnout leave. And so on and so forth. 

It’s a never-ending circle. 

Layoffs & Burnout Root Causes:

✅ Unsustainable workload

✅ Lack of control

✅ Mismatch in values

✅ Insufficient rewards for effort

Work Still Isn’t Flexible 🏢

A 2022 survey run by the APA found that the top measures employers could take to support employee wellbeing were to offer:

  1. Flexible working hours

  2. A workplace culture that respects time off

  3. The ability to work remotely

  4. And a four-day work week

According to a recent study, remote workers continue to indicate higher levels of overall wellbeing. Fully remote workers (23%) report fewer instances of being burned out than their hybrid (28%) or in-office counterparts (31%). 

This all sounds like a clear case for more flexible working conditions to prevent employee burnout (and in some cases, increase worker productivity), but...

A whopping 90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024, and 64% of leaders predict a full return to office by 2026. 

According to Business Insider, “Blue-chip companies including Goldman Sachs, Meta, and Zoom are pushing, with varying degrees of severity, for employees to be physically present at work, ending years of workers being able to work from wherever they liked.”

Inflexible working conditions are root cause of burnout
Return to office, what?

Again, what we’re seeing here is a mismatch in values between employees and employers (employees want remote and hybrid options, CEO’s want everyone in the office five days a week). 

It’s interesting how we see a lot of employers in The Netherlands publicly embracing the concept of DE&I, but hesitating to embrace the laws in this country that actually uphold diversity and inclusion (such as “The Flexible Work Act” which allows an employee to request a reduced work week - albeit with reduced pay - or to request to work from home only).

We also see a complete lack of control and a complete lack of support in creating the conditions that are both healthy and productive for the people working in these companies.

CEO’s are desperately grasping to maintain all decision-making control when it comes to flexible working conditions - even when the data says it will help their businesses and make their employees happier. 

Why are they doing this? Business Insider hit the nail on the head when they stated that it’s simply, “a way for elite, work-obsessed CEOs to grab power back from employees.”

In the minds of CEO’s, if employees are able to determine where they work from, what’s next? 

  • Determining when they work?

  • How they work?

  • Or even how much they make for that work?? (gasp!)

To CEO’s, flexible work is a gateway to giving employees “too much control” in the business and working conditions overall. This is why we all feel crazy when we don't see these executives following the data (as so many of these tech companies champion in our day to day jobs).

They are simply afraid of giving employees too much decision-making power in their workplaces.

Hate to say it, but it's true.

Inflexible Work & Burnout Root Causes:

✅ Lack of control

✅ Lack of support

✅ Mismatch in values

Pay Still Isn’t Equitable 🤑

As tech profits and stock prices continue to rise, one would think that a proportional amount of money would be passed along to the people working at these companies.

But that simply hasn’t been the case - for decades. 

According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, the take-home pay of the top 1% of people (i.e. C-Suite, executives, board members, etc.) in the economy grew 138% since 1979, while the salaries of those in the bottom 90% (i.e. the rest of us) grew only by 15%. 

wage gap increase data

Another one of my favorite graphs is this one from 2021, where 61% of business leaders indicated they were “thriving” compared to about 54-67% of their regular workforce that was “surviving/struggling”.

business leaders are faring better than their employees
Business leaders - living their best lives!

Pay between leaders and workers is not equitable - we simply don’t see the two growing in a proportional trend that matches the increase in overall company profits we’ve witnessed over the past decades. With that pay gap, there also comes a psychological gap.

Again, there’s a mismatch in values here; if the majority of the people doing the work and producing the profits aren’t being fairly rewarded for that labor, then the cognitive dissonance can only widen with the pay gap so much until people start burning out. 

If the majority of the people doing the work and producing the profits aren’t being fairly rewarded for that labor, then the cognitive dissonance can only widen with the pay gap so much until people start burning out. 

Pay equity as root cause of burnout
Tell me again how much CEO's got paid in the 70's?

This is also a Diversity Equity & Inclusion issue.

We all know the pay gap gets even wider for women, people of color, and other minorities. So it should be no surprise when we see data like, women have made up 39% of the global workforce but have accounted for 54% of the overall job loss since 2020.  

If we’re laying off the roles that primarily consist of women, then those women (whether they were impacted or not) are also going to be more susceptible to burnout and in turn, less susceptible to growing their salaries. Especially if they are women of color who are experiencing the intersectional whammy of gender and racial discrimination in the workplace. According to a Deloitte study, 67% of women have reported burnout compared to 59% of men. 

So, it looks like money doesn’t buy happiness... but it does prevent burnout. 

Lack of Pay Equity & Burnout Root Causes: 

✅ Insufficient rewards for effort

✅ Lack of fairness

✅ Lack of control

Audre Lorde prophesied correctly in Your Silence Will Not Protect You (2017) when she said,

“If we’re living in structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings are not meant to survive”.  

The good news is, there are measures we can take, backed by Dutch labor law, that can help us start to dismantle these systems of linear power and bring more humanization back into our workplaces. 

Read Next:

Works Councils and workplace democracy

Want to Learn More? 💬

Let’s keep these good vibes going!

Are you a Works Council member in a Dutch company who’s curious to learn how to strengthen your WoCo to a point where it can make big, impactful change (that will also prevent worker burnout)? Then come to our masterclass!

Reimagining Dutch Works Councils Masterclass

Written by Kelly Mullins

Kelly Mullins is an experienced worker organizer with a track record for building strategic campaigns that facilitate effective, employee-led change at large, multinational companies. In 2020, she led the Works Council committee that negotiated the biggest restructuring in history - saving hundreds of jobs, implementing a competitive voluntary leave scheme, and the company’s first-ever social plan. Her 10+ year career in the tech industry has laid the foundation for her to effectively empathize with employees, equip them with information, and inspire them to take action. She is passionate about the opportunity she sees for workplace democracy to intersect with important topics such as burnout prevention, climate justice, job security, and DE&I. In her free time, Kelly likes to write and runs an online poetry magazine. She is currently based in Amsterdam.


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