On Fire or Fizzling Out: Who Is at Risk for Burnout?

For the past year and a half, we all have lived with some degree of uncertainty as the global pandemic wreaked havoc, changing how we interact with others and live our lives. While burnout is not a novel occupational stressor, COVID-19 has escalated the rate of burnout. Of the 75% of workers experiencing burnout, 40% reported burnout as a direct result of COVID-19.1 Throughout the pandemic, one thing has remained clear: employers who want to gain a competitive advantage need to focus on employee well-being.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”2 Burnout is not something that happens to employees who are disengaged or whose performance is poor. In fact, burnout tends to occur highest in passion-driven occupations.3 People who experience burnout are typically those who were once highly engaged and impassioned by their work. In other words, you must first be on fire to be susceptible to burnout.

Numerous wooden matches with red tips stand upright on a pink surface in front of a white wall. Symbolizing employee burnout in the workplace, one match is almost completely charred and burned out. The wood is frayed on the sides, and the match is curled over at the top.

The top reasons for employee burnout are due to issues leaders can control, making it more of an organizational problem than an individual problem.3 Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have identified six factors that make a workplace prone to inducing burnout: demand overload, lacking control, poor reward systems, a socially toxic work environment, inequity, and a conflict of values.

Burnout has a major cost to both organizations and individuals. Between lost productivity, employee disengagement, absenteeism, lower organizational commitment, and turnover, burnout costs organizations as much as $190 billion annually.4 Burnout’s impact on individuals includes prolonged stress, stress-related health issues, and decreased productivity. Moreover, the effects may be disproportionate for different demographics. In 2020, when COVID-19 made remote work prevalent and schools shut down, the rate of burnout increased among women, in particular.5 Women began dropping out of the workforce at an alarming rate to manage home responsibilities, which exacerbated the burnout many were already experiencing.

Employer response to burnout can no longer be reactive. Employers must start proactively addressing burnout before it happens. While all six burnout factors are critical for organizations to diagnose and address, there’s a practical solution for addressing potential value conflicts. The Motives, Values, and Preferences Inventory (MVPI) is often described as assessing “the inside of personality” because it measures our core drivers, values, and interests. The values someone holds give us insight into what that person strives to attain both personally and professionally. Alignment between employee and organizational values ultimately leads to increased well-being, productivity, retention, and more desirable outcomes. On the other hand, when an employee’s values are not being met in their role or organization, the organization tends to see poorer employee outcomes, which may eventually result in turnover of that employee.    

The COVID-19 pandemic put healthcare workers at increased risk for burnout due to the heavy demands they face and the lack of control they have over their environment. A nurse who scored high on the MVPI for Recognition, Altruistic, and Affiliation may have been getting their values met prior to the pandemic by receiving frequent recognition for their accomplishments from their manager (Recognition), connecting with patients (Altruistic), and having numerous opportunities to form relationships with team members (Affiliation). Under those prepandemic circumstances, the nurse likely would have felt good about their work.

But the circumstances of the pandemic are different. The nurse must now maintain distance from both patients and coworkers, which means the Affiliation value is not being met anymore. Being an essential worker means increased demands, which may interfere with the nurse’s sense of altruism. The nurse’s manager is also overworked and overwhelmed and is unable to provide the level of recognition the nurse needs to feel motivated and valued. This is clear example of someone who is already at risk for burnout due to the pandemic and whose value conflict may accelerate burnout.

Although it is a challenging problem to solve, it is up to the organization to figure out creative ways to help employees who are experiencing burnout. In addition to value alignment, employers can seek an understanding of the personality characteristics measured by the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) and the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) that might be predictive of burnout. In addition to helping employers understand and prevent burnout, our tools can also help employees become aware of their unique burnout indicators and — with the support of their employers — take actionable steps in preventing burnout.

Want to learn more about the specific personality characteristics that are predictive of burnout? Check out our on-demand webinar!

This post was authored by Jessie McClure, corporate solutions consultant, and Jessica Walker, talent analytics consultant.


  1. Mendoza, N.F. (2020, August 24). COVID-19 Has Exacerbated a 75% Job Burnout Rate, Study Says. TechRepublic. https://www.techrepublic.com/article/covid-19-has-exacerbated-a-75-job-burnout-rate-study-says/
  2. Burn-out an “Occupational Phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. (2019, May 28). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
  3. Moss, J. (2019, December 11). Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people
  4. Weiss, L. (2020, October 20). Burnout From an Organizational Perspective. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/burnout_from_an_organizational_perspective
  5. Kashen, J., Glynn, S.J., Novello, A. (2020, October 30). How COVID-19 Sent Women’s Workforce Progress Backward. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/10/30/492582/covid-19-sent-womens-workforce-progress-backward