Job Burnout Causes & a Need for Challenge for Strategic PMs

This post provides some insights into a difficult topic: job and career burnout. It looks first at what the typical causes of job burnout are. Then it focuses on one unique cause of burnout – lack of challenge. Finally, it looks at implications – approaches and actions – for strategy and project management for this specific type of career burnout.

What Are the Causes for Burnout?

Job Burnout CausesThere are many causes of burnout for professionals in the workplace today. Here are some common causes:

  1. Excessive Workload – Heavy workloads and long hours – especially when coupled with other factors below – can lead to burnout. A continuous feeling of overwhelm can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion.
  2. Lack of Control – Feeling a lack of control over one’s work or decision-making can contribute to burnout. This often results from micromanagement, which gives workers a sense of powerlessness which decreases job satisfaction.
  3. Unclear Expectations – Ambiguity – in terms of job roles, expectations, or responsibilities – can lead to stress, frustration, and burnout.
  4. Lack of Recognition – Employees who feel undervalued or unappreciated for their efforts may experience burnout. Recognition and appreciation for hard work are essential for job satisfaction.
  5. Poor Work-Life Balance – Difficulty in balancing work and personal life can lead to burnout. Professionals need time for relaxation, family, and personal activities to maintain overall well-being.
  1. Lack of Social Support – Isolation at the workplace or a lack of supportive relationships with colleagues can contribute to burnout. A positive and collaborative work environment is essential, especially where remote workers are involved.
  2. Inadequate Resources – Insufficient resources, such as tools, equipment, or support staff, can increase stress levels and contribute to burnout.
  3. Conflict in the Workplace – Excessive, unmanaged, and ongoing conflicts with colleagues or superiors can create a toxic work environment that leads to burnout.
  4. Job Insecurity – Concerns about job stability and fear of layoffs can cause stress and anxiety, contributing to burnout.
  5. Mismatch of Values – Misalignment between personal values and the organization’s values can lead to dissatisfaction and burnout.

Burnout is a complex, multi-faceted issue. Individual experiences certainly vary, but usually include a combination of the above factors.

But there is one more – an unmet need for challenge!

The need for challenge is an inherent human need. And it is not always considered a contributing cause for burnout. But think about it – it is!

The rest of this post will focus on this one unique factor of work-related burnout – the unmet need for challenge.

The Lack of Challenge as a Unique Cause of Burnout

The unmet need for challenge can be restated as “lacking challenge”. This is often the result of outgrowing the job, or simply being in a job for which the employee is overqualified.

When individuals feel that their work lacks stimulation, challenge, or opportunities for growth, it can lead to a sense of stagnation and dissatisfaction. The resulting frustration can lead to burnout.

Here’s some more detail on how these factors contribute to burnout:

  1. Lacking Challenge – If a job becomes monotonous and fails to engage an individual intellectually or creatively, it can lead to boredom and a lack of motivation. The absence of challenging tasks may result in a decline in job satisfaction and, over time, contribute to burnout.
  2. Outgrowing the Job – As professionals develop their skills and gain experience, they may find that their current job no longer aligns with their evolving abilities and aspirations. When individuals feel that they have outgrown their current role, they may experience frustration and a sense of being stuck, leading to burnout.
  3. Stagnation and Lack of Development – Jobs that do not provide opportunities for skill development, learning, or advancement can contribute to feelings of stagnation. Professionals who desire continuous growth and development – usually the best and most desired employees – may become disenchanted with roles that do not offer such prospects, ultimately contributing to burnout.

Note that some of the causes of burnout listed in the section above can effect the level of challenge.

Here’s what organizations can do. Focus on:

  • Providing ongoing training and development opportunities
  • Creating a culture that encourages innovation and creativity
  • Offering avenues for career progression
  • Empowering…so that people can “flex their muscles”

And here’s what individuals can do:

  • Explore ways to enhance their current roles
  • Seek new challenges
  • Communicate their aspirations to leads
  • Use your imagination!

For both organizations and individuals, it’s important to realize that everyone is different. Plan for some way to design the organization and jobs with some flexibility. This could include job rotation, setting up cohort groups for similar functions, and horizontal job shifts.

In both cases, acknowledging that this condition exists is important. The reality is that it will exist for some people, but it’s not healthy if it becomes a widespread issue. However, it can be acceptable for this to inevitably result in some small degree of turnover.

Strategic Implications of Challenge-deficit Burnout

The implications of burnout due to an unchallenging situation leaves a person feel “directionless”. This is the antithesis of strategy!

There are two sides to this issue: that of the organization, and that of the individual.

The Organization Side

Organizations need to build in a system that attempts to prevent employees from experiencing challenge deficit. This sounds easy, since the commonly understood cause of burnout is overwork. However, challenge deficit burnout is real.

Clarity at the highest levels of the strategy is a critical starting point. Ideally every employee will feel an ownership stake in the strategy, or at least a piece of it. The challenge in communication and management. The best way to get people to own it is to have them participate collaboratively in the development of the strategy and the tactics for its execution.

One great example of clarity at the highest level is the Automattic Creed. High level statements of purpose such as this provide a rallying point for everyone to believe in something, take ownership of their actions, and take strategic action.

In addition to strategic clarity, the organization structure needs to be in order. The McKinsey 7 S Framework Model helps to assess the organization’s readiness to successfully deliver the desired results. I would argue that the more ready and oriented the organization is to deliver, the less likelihood there is a challenge deficit burnout.

Another approach at the organizational strategy level is in developing an effective incentive system. Incentives are challenging! One incentive system that has worked well for many organizations is Objectives and Key Results (OKR). Again, I would argue that an organization that has its incentives act together will minimize challenge deficit burnout.

The Individual Side

On an individual basis, employees need to learn to think strategically for themselves. For example, “Assess Your Life Portfolio” by the Harvard Business Review lays out a strategic framework to use personally – including factors such as relationships, spirituality, community, finances, extracurricular, and health. It even suggests ways to leverage decision trees in the process.

Individuals can do their best to join the right organization, but it is rare that the match will last forever. Professionals will be much happier and less subject to challenge deficit burnout – and feel self-empowered – if they have their own strategic plan.

Project Management Implications of Challenge-deficit Burnout

Projects are tough! And they require a personal touch.

The larger the project, the more difficult it is to have that personal touch with each person. However, for any project team that is 150 people or lower, PM’s can usually get to know everyone at some level across the whole project. And deeper touch also becomes the job of mid-level leads on the project.

There are two sides to this for a project manager:

Satisfying stakeholders

Stakeholders are paying for the project or have some important stake in the outcome. It is the PM’s job to deliver the results.

Delivering those results means that team members are productive and add value. There simply is no room on a project to have resources that are not challenged. But there can be pressures to have people billable, smooth out the work effort over time, and maintain or increase revenues.

It is also a challenge to have the right people in the right roles. That alone can avoid the possibility of challenge deficit. The key is to have people that are challenged by the roles, and whose competence and makeup will match the challenge.

It is the PM’s job to manage these pressures and align with project delivery performance. Doing this effectively usually averts the possibility of a lack of challenge!

Leading team members

Leadership can be complicated!

Leading means empowering people. Each individual needs a certain level of guidance – and each personal also needs a certain degree of autonomy. Striking that balance is empowerment. Micromanagement indicates that you have overstepped and are doing more manipulating or controlling than empowering.

I would argue that the stronger the leader, the less likelihood that people will suffer burnout or stress from lack of challenge. Strong leadership engages people. It’s also a matter of identifying the critical people leadership levers – such as in tipping point leadership.

Conclusion and Further Resources

This post provided insights into a difficult topic: job and career burnout. It first looked at what the typical causes of job burnout are. Then it sharpened focus on one unique cause of burnout – lack of challenge. Finally, it uncovered implications – tactics and actions – for strategy and project management for this specific type of career burnout.

Have you experienced challenge-deficit burnout yourself, or through another professional? Can you share your experience?

The following is a short 5 min video by Dr. Christina Maslach of University of California at Berkeley. It provides three simple remedies to burnout – no matter the cause.

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