Burnout as Behavior

Burnout, whether at work, in sports, or just in life is a concern often described in self-help books, manuals, and websites concerned with the human condition. It is said to occur when people stop doing, do only with considerably more effort, or stop doing effectively things they did previously with enthusiasm and vigor. Its causes often are described as psychological or mental states having to do with such things as loss of interest, a change in attitude, depression, or even a lack of “energy.” These, however, are not causes. They are outcomes. When burnout is considered a psychological state, it becomes another way of blaming the person - in this case the inner person - for his or her behavior.

A different way of looking at burnout is to consider it not a psychological or personality derived state, but rather behavior that results from environmental conditions. Considered in this way, if a person is fully engaged, demonstrating enthusiasm and vigor about tasks in life and then stops, the stopping is not the problem of the individual but rather the individual interacting in the environment.

If burnout is behavior, and behavior is determined by its consequences, it is there we might productively look to understand burnout. When reinforcement is degraded or discontinued, behavior is similarly degraded or stops altogether. If reinforcement is discontinued, it soon is followed by the cessation of the previously reinforced response. If the reinforcer is unchanged, but the requirement for earning that reinforcer is increased progressively after each reinforcer, the cost of responding eventually becomes so high relative to the reinforcer it is producing that behavior ceases altogether (one example of this is stretch goals). In both of these examples, the behavior could be said to have burned out.

An obvious way of preventing burnout is to assure that the reinforcer matches the effort required to earn it. Sometimes reinforcement simply is too infrequent to sustain the desired behavior, even though the response requirement itself is unchanged. The obvious solution is to increase the frequency of reinforcement. If a response requirement is changing, research suggests that for behavior to be sustained there must be proportional changes in the characteristics of the reinforcer, such as its amount or quality.

What if burnout already has happened? How can we get back behavior that has been eliminated through nonreinforcement or extinction? Reinstating the reinforcer is often enough to “jump start” the return of behavior, but once it reappears it needs to be reinforced frequently and vigorously, at least at the beginning of its recurrence. Sometimes, too, a change of circumstances will help reinstate burned-out behavior. It’s like the old Jimmy Buffet song lines about “changes in latitude, changes in attitude.” At the extreme, it means a new beginning. Less extremely, it may mean a vacation or a new assignment or your company or spouse understanding that they are a part of the puzzle—and perhaps they too need to change their approach. Of course, someone can be deeply depressed about feeling burned out and those feelings should not be ignored. But, remember that the solution most likely lies in the interactions you are having with one’s environment. Those who manage others they believe are experiencing burnout need to just as carefully consider what they as managers and leaders are doing in conditions of the workplace that they help to establish and maintain. Looking at the individual as the “cause” is a significant failure on the part of leaders to create fully engaged workplaces. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.