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A Different Approach to Burnout

A Different Approach to Burnout

Within the last few years, the number of articles written about the impact of burnout and ways to address or prevent it has risen sharply. Overwhelming demands, low pay and/or appreciation, and toxic work environments are frequently cited as causes of career fatigue. While burnout can be spurred by any number of external factors, research shows that it can also be a function of personality traits and attitudes about our work. 

The first step to addressing burnout is understanding what brought us to our particular job and career. To be sure, “paying the bills” is as good a reason as any to have a job, but there was likely a decision-making process by which you came to be employed in your current position. In some ways, our work reflects who we are as individuals. Studies indicate that burnout often results when we do not feel that our work is significant. Sometimes this feeling is gradual. We start a job optimistic that our work will be meaningful and fulfilling. And for a while, it is. But this honeymoon phase sometimes gives way to doubts about whether we made the right choice, about whether our work is truly significant.

Career Choice

A number of career theories attempt to explain the reasons for choosing certain jobs. Some contend that it’s simply a conscious decision-making process. Others argue that personality type determines interest and aptitudes for specific work. One of the more compelling theories contends that vocational choice is influenced by childhood experiences, including family occupations and prevailing attitudes about work, money and success. For example, growing up in a critical or fastidious family might lead one to a career in quality control, where an emphasis on detail is valued. In another scenario, if a parent always dreamed of being a musician but never had the chance to pursue it, they might invest these hopes and dreams into their children, who then see music as a viable means of garnering recognition. 

Considerable support exists for the idea that career choice is influenced by our families. Facebook Research looked at user profile data and found that siblings are significantly more likely to share a profession than a pair of non-sibling individuals, and twins share professions a striking 24.7% of the time. A study cited in the New York Times found that the daughter of a military officer mother was 281 times more likely to follow in her mother’s footsteps than individuals with no parental connection to the armed forces. The findings were noted across gender too–for example, a boy is 20 times more likely to become a scientist if his mother is a scientist. Some careers are especially dynastic, such as law, medicine, steelworking, and politics.

The primary role of family in career choice can be understood in several ways. One might be that a growing child observes their parents’ working behaviors and passions, and seeks to emulate them. Another is that children internalize the desires of their parents in order to please them and garner attention. Another possibility is that personality traits  are passed down generationally, leading to similar preferences in occupation. To be clear, working in the same occupation as a family member is not a bad thing. In fact, some of the greatest innovators, artists, athletes and business people were exposed to their future careers at a young age through the work or hobbies of their parents.

But hat do the occupations of family members have to do with burnout? It’s simply a way of noticing that our jobs are often vehicles for us to express our personalities in specific ways. Understanding what motivated us in a particular direction career-wise might help explain our current hang-ups in the workplace. Sometimes burnout accompanies a transition, loss, or adjustment in our personal lives. The loss of a family member from whom we inherited our proclivity for certain work could trigger a rut extending into our work lives. Similarly, our jobs might be frustrating us in a similar way as we were frustrated as youngsters. Cold and critical superiors might serve as reminders of cold and critical caregivers. We might be working to excess because that is what our own parents did in order to achieve a sense of value and worth, but we are ignoring other areas of our lives and the result is burnout. If these dynamics are understood, we are better able to adapt to the challenges we face at work. 

A New Vocational Vision

We used to think of career as the paid work we do in our life, but over the years its meaning has broadened to include any activities in which an individual participates, including hobbies, relationships, family, etc. It was Donald Super, a forefather of vocational guidance, who first posed the idea of career maturity—that is, the evolution of our interests and needs over time, possibly leading to job and role changes throughout the lifespan. Super conceptualized career as the sum of all of our life roles, not just our jobs. The advantage to this approach is a holistic view of ourselves, encouraging us to supplement our work lives with activities and roles that interest and edify us.

Hobbies are important because they round out the needs of an individual in a way that no single job ever could. If you enjoy working as an event planner, but you have a mind geared toward craftsmanship or carpentry, you might benefit from hobbyist woodworking as an adjunct to your occupation. Hobbies allow us to express latent aspects of ourselves that paid work might never give us the opportunity to develop.  

Toward Less Idealism

Just as storybook portrayals of romantic love can have the effect of setting unrealistic expectations of actual relationships, so does overly romantic attitudes about work. Quotes like, “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” while well-intentioned, can lead us to believe that an ideal job is one without frustrations, challenges and disappointments. The quote, often—and incorrectly—attributed to Confucius, is ironic in that in the time of Confucius, job choice was actually quite limited. It’s more likely that people viewed work as a given in life, rather than some joyous expression of self. Even Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci was a procrastinator who failed to finish numerous projects, and was often dissatisfied with his work.

The vision of career as a perfect melding of work and play is a bit grandiose. It comes up short in acknowledging the reality that every career and job will present challenges to the worker; that no matter what the job is, there will be days you will not want to work and may question if you’re on the right track. Uncertainty is not necessarily the product of being on the wrong path; doubts and fears are the stuff of life. More important is to attempt to discern what these things might be hinting at. Perhaps we would be happier if we worked in a different way, but in the same job. Maybe we have hobbies we need to develop. It’s possible that we need to have a conversation with our managers or coworkers about our needs as employees, assuming they are receptive to feedback. Or, we might just be in the wrong job and need a change. These all might go a long way in enhancing the work experience.  

Career Tests

Vocational aptitude and interest tests can match people to a list of possible careers, but they often fail to capture the subjective details of a person’s life, their interests, dreams, etc.

While it can be tempting to use a career test to guide us in the right direction, we should always exercise skepticism when doing so. No one test could ever approximate the specific needs and interests of an individual. To quote the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud:

“In vital matters… such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come… from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”

Freud believed that in more trivial matters, something like a pros and cons list can be helpful in making a decision. But the bigger things in life should generally be based on intuition, on a sense of our deeper needs.

If you are curious about career tests, a pretty good one is the RIASEC, based on John Holland’s “Codes.” 

The Holland Codes assign a three-letter type based on your scores in the following personality dimensions: (R)ealistic, (I)nvestigative, (A)rtistic, (S)ocial, (E)nterprising, (C)onventional.


The link above is a questionnaire to determine your three-letter code, which then pulls up a list of occupations.

Have fun with it. You might be surprised to find your current job on the list of ideal occupations.

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