When demands on productivity escalate while resource availability and team sizes shrink, the pressure to do more with less fuels stress. With daily stress reaching an all-time high for the second year in a row, employee burnout remains a global challenge.1
Although burnout is the result of unmanaged chronic workplace stress,2 it’s not an exclusively individual problem. It’s also an organisational phenomenon with organisational causes and remedies. Due to this complexity, among other reasons, burnout is not a simple issue to address. Still, many talent professionals are tasked with the challenge of retaining and engaging burned-out workers—sometimes while facing burnout themselves.
Read on to discover causes of employee burnout, individual differences in burnout, and how personality can help with recognising and managing employee burnout.
Causes of Employee Burnout
Two of the greatest causes of employee burnout have to do with organisational environment and expectations. Employees experiencing a toxic workplace environment are more likely to report burnout and leave their employers.3 Behaviours that contribute to a toxic workplace environment include the abusive, discriminatory, or unethical speech and actions of leaders and peers. Another driver of burnout is the systemic imbalance that causes organisational demands to exceed individual resources, such as when layoffs reduce team size without any adjustment to the team’s required work product.3 This condition leads to unreasonable expectations, overwork, and heightened stress for employees. These issues lie within the responsibility and control of organisations.
While the causes of employee burnout are often organisational, individual differences in personality can explain how burnout affects behaviour. This is why understanding personality is an important metric in understanding burnout. Insights from certain well-validated personality assessments can help leaders, coaches, and talent professionals assist organisations in recognising burnout.
Individual Differences in Employee Burnout
Although burnout can happen to anyone, how likely, quickly, or noticeably burnout might happen varies by person.
Two of Hogan’s three personality assessments can help explain who is most likely to burn out and what kind of behaviours they are likely to exhibit during burnout. The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) provides data about seven bright-side personality characteristics, which are the qualities that facilitate a person’s ability to get along with others and achieve goals. The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) assesses 11 dark-side personality characteristics, or derailers. Dark-side personality characteristics are typically strengths that, when overused, can interfere with professional reputations and careers. Overuse of these behaviours tends to occur when a person stops self-managing due to stress, overwhelm, complacency, or burnout.
Hogan researchers have identified relationships between burnout and scores on the HPI and HDS assessments. Specifically, low scores across the seven HPI scales correlate to burnout, and eight of the 11 HDS scales correlate to burnout.
Hogan Personality Inventory
All the HPI scales were significantly and negatively associated with burnout. The higher that people scored on an HPI scale, the less they reported burnout. Put another way, greater experiences of burnout were related to lower scores on HPI scales. Since it’s typical for people to have at least one low HPI scale, these results affirm that burnout can happen to anyone. If someone seems burned-out, their lower HPI scores could offer insight. Knowing the relationship between personality characteristics and burnout, talent professionals can help people better understand the factors contributing to their burnout.
To put this into perspective, Hogan research demonstrates that low scores on the Adjustment and Ambition scales have the strongest correlations to burnout among all the HPI scales. For instance, someone with a low Adjustment score may be more stress prone and less resilient. If they feel burned-out, they might need to reflect on whether they’ve been experiencing a lot of recent changes and stress. As another example, someone with a low Ambition score may prefer to pursue realistic goals versus difficult challenges. They might need to reflect on whether they’ve been challenged with leadership situations at work beyond their comfort zone.
Hogan Development Survey
Dark-side characteristics are also associated with burnout.4 Of the HDS’s 11 scales, scores high on the Excitable and Cautious scales but low on the Bold scale are most strongly correlated to burnout.5
Unlike the HPI correlations, the HDS correlations are not all negative. Some HDS scales were positively related to burnout, particularly in the Moving Away cluster of scales. This cluster includes Excitable, Sceptical, Cautious, Reserved, and Leisurely. During derailment, people who score high in the Moving Away cluster tend to withdraw from others. They might act emotionally temperamental, suspicious, risk averse, aloof, or resentful. Among the Moving Away scales, high scores on the Excitable and Cautious scales showed the strongest correlations to burnout:
- High Excitable – The Excitable scale relates to passion, energy, and drive; however, that same passion can also contribute to burnout.6 The Excitable scale is strongly correlated with the HPI Adjustment scale. This further demonstrates that individuals who have difficulty managing stress and emotions may report greater experiences of burnout.
- High Cautious – The Cautious scale relates to risk aversion and fear of failure. This HDS scale correlates with HPI Ambition, supporting the notion that individuals who are less comfortable making decisions and taking initiative are more likely to report greater experiences of burnout.
On the other hand, significant negative correlations to burnout appeared in the cluster of scales called Moving Against. This cluster includes Bold, Mischievous, Colourful, and Imaginative. Those who score high in the Moving Against cluster tend to overengage with others. They can seem excessively confident, risk taking, attention seeking, or eccentric. Among the Moving Against scales, Bold, Colourful, and Imaginative showed significant negative correlations to burnout. A negative correlation indicates those with high scores on these scales may be less likely to report burnout, whereas those with low scores may be more likely. Of the three scales, low scores on the Bold scale showed the strongest correlation to burnout:
- Low Bold – As an everyday strength, Bold relates to confidence and assertiveness. During derailment, those who score high on the Bold scale tend to seem aggressive, ambitious, and arrogant. Their belief in their abilities can contribute to a high level of resilience, which might mitigate feelings of burnout.5 Therefore, someone with a low Bold score who lacks confidence may be more likely to report greater experiences of burnout.
Burnout might not always be visible. Especially among people with Moving Away derailers, burnout can be difficult for even seasoned talent professionals to detect. Organisations should be proactive about remedying systemic factors in burnout and ensuring their cultures support employee well-being.
How to Manage Employee Burnout
Because burnout is associated with increased mental distance from work,2 the ensuing disengagement can be expensive. Absenteeism and decreased productivity from disengaged employees can cost organisations 34% of each burned-out worker’s annual salary.7 Organisational intervention is essential to rescue employees from the occupational phenomenon that is damaging to both well-being and profitability.
Such interventions include gathering personality data and educating the workforce about personality characteristics and burnout. Leaders especially need to recognise signs of burnout and build work environments in which burnout is a safe topic of discussion.
Another meaningful intervention is transparent communication. This is a two-part endeavour. One element is to acknowledge that the nature of work has recently changed and that we all are likely to continue to perform work in a VUCA environment (that is, a work environment characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). The other element is to set realistic expectations for leaders and workers so that employee daily stress can decrease from its current global level of 44%.1
Implementing an engagement survey to ask employees what they need and want can also help organisations apply targeted interventions. For example, by using a combination of survey data and personality assessment data, a healthcare organisation learned that one category of practitioners desired more recognition. By understanding that group’s particular values and drivers, the organisation was able to be direct and specific in its remedy of providing public acknowledgement.
One of the best interventions for burnout is to invest in leadership development. Effective leaders build and maintain high-performing teams by promoting strategic self-awareness in themselves and team members. Understanding the role of personality in the workplace can reveal how leaders themselves react to stress and pressure. Those same leader personality characteristics, such as coping with stress or taking initiative, have a huge effect on workplace culture and employee well-being.
In these and other interventions, personality data are key to knowing how to support and retain burned-out workers and leaders. If layoffs do reduce team size, for example, leaders who recognise the personality strengths and limitations of their team members will more effectively redefine goals and reallocate work. They will also be vigilant for and sensitive to different signals of stress from individual team members.
- Gallup. (2023). State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/349484/state-of-the-global-workplace.aspx
- World Health Organization. (2019, 28 May). Burn-out an “Occupational Phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. WHO. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
- McKinsey Health Institute. (2023, 27 May). Addressing Employee Burnout: Are You Solving the Right Problem? McKinsey. https://www.mckinsey.com/mhi/our-insights/addressing-employee-burnout-are-you-solving-the-right-problem#/
- Harms, P., Marbut, A., Johnston, A., Lester, P., & Fezzey, T. (December, 2022). Exposing The Darkness Within: A Review of Dark Personality Traits, Models, and Measures and Their Relationship to Insider Threats. Journal of Information Security and Applications, 71. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jisa.2022.103378
- Treglown, L., Palaiou, K., Zarola, A., & Furnham, A. (2016). The Dark Side of Resilience and Burnout: A Moderation-Mediation Model. PloS one, 11(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0156279
- Hogan, R., & Sherman, R. (2022, 19 May). Dark Leadership and the Fate of Organizations. In Derek Lusk & Theodore L. Hayes (Eds.), Overcoming Bad Leadership in Organizations (pp. 17-49). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780197552759.003.0002
- Borysenko, K. (2019, May 2). How Much Are Your Disengaged Employees Costing You? Fortune. https://www.forbes.com/sites/karlynborysenko/2019/05/02/how-much-are-your-disengaged-employees-costing-you/?sh=1be62ec23437
*This post originally appeared on Hogan Assessments
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