Overworked and Happy? The Unlikely Link Between Burnout and Job Satisfaction


Being overworked and being happy aren’t mutually exclusive, according to a new study. But how? (Photo: Getty Images/Sam Diephuis)

Like pickles and jam or yoga pants worn with a crisp blazer, burnout and workplace happiness seem like two things that just don’t go together.

That’s why the results of a new Staples Advantage survey of 2,602 people are so baffling: 53 percent of employees report feeling overloaded — yet 86 percent say they’re satisfied with their jobs.

How can these two seemingly contradictory states of mind coexist? And how can you start feeling positive about your too-demanding gig? Let’s break it down.

Burnout: The New Norm

If you’re like a lot of American workers, you feel expected to be “on” pretty much 24/7. The survey found that 39 percent of people occasionally work on weekends, 35 percent grind away after hours to complete assignments they don’t have time for during the day, and nearly half eat lunch at their desks and feel they can’t even get up for a break. Sounds like fun! 

We have the Great Recession to thank for this. “Workplace productivity is at an all-time high, and continues to increase,” Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, tells Yahoo Health. “While a lot of this is due to technological advancements, we are also asking more and more of U.S. workers. The downsizing trend means that fewer people are doing a greater bulk of the work.” 

After nearly a decade shouldering a whopping workload, we’re no longer outraged; we’ve simply accepted it as our reality. We’re conditioned to assume that we’ll be working our butts off all the time, so it doesn’t get us down the way it used to.

Related: Workaholism Is Really Bad for You

Why Overtaxed People Still Enjoy Working 

OK, so we may have accepted the reality of being constantly stressed out. But how is it possible to find pleasure in such a backbreaking environment?

In part, it’s our brain playing tricks on us. In a psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, people who are confronted by two conflicting beliefs attempt to rationalize how both can be true at the same time. “The process works like this: We think, ‘I’m in this job. I don’t have to be in this job because there are alternatives. Therefore, I must like my job,’” Riggio explains. “So, when surveyed and asked, ‘Are you satisfied with your job?’ the vast majority of people say yes because of cognitive dissonance — it would be inconsistent to reply no because you don’t have to be there.”

There’s also the fact that, with each individual worker having a larger degree of responsibility as a result of downsizing, employees play a more pivotal role in their organization and their efforts carry more weight. “People know how much their company needs them, and seeing that they have an impact gives them satisfaction,” Riggio says. 

Plus, when you love and care about your career, it’s natural for work to bleed into the rest of your life. “You might take on too much because you’re so passionate about getting involved,” Charles D. Kerns, professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University and founder of Corperformance, Inc., tells Yahoo Health. “Sure, you might be exhausted at the end of the day, but if your work is meaningful, you might want it to be all-encompassing.” Indeed, burnout isn’t necessarily induced from external demands: 41 percent of employees put personal pressure on themselves to perform. 

Give Burnout the Boot

Even if you’re happy, burning the candle at both ends does take a toll. Thirty-eight percent of employees say burnout is a motivator for a new job search, and 66 percent acknowledge that it negatively affects their productivity.

So even though it’s hard to squeeze in downtime when you have 5 million things on your to-do list, remember that giving yourself a break pays off in the long run. “A healthy lifestyle will make you more productive and attentive,” Riggio says. “Being able to disengage from work and set boundaries is important for your mental and physical well-being.”

Instead of scarfing a sandwich at your desk, eat lunch with a co-worker or take a midday walk. “Try giving yourself a break each time you complete a challenging assignment, as a personal reward,” adds Riggio. “This sense of positive reinforcement will also motivate you to step up your performance.”

Related: 6 Ways ‘Me-Time’ Can Help You at Work

Employees also cited workplace distractions as a source of frustration. Half of people said they receive too much email; a quarter reported superfluous meetings; 55 percent complained about loud co-workers. The more you can cut back on these interruptions, the more productive you’ll be.

So establish a few ground rules to improve your efficiency. Turn off your email alerts so you’re not pinged every other second, and, if possible, block off a few periods throughout the day to answer emails in batches, rather than responding to them one by one as they trickle in. If you work in a boisterous environment, invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones, or pop into an empty conference room when you really need to focus on a task. This way, you’ll have less on your plate in your off hours and can spend that time truly recharging. 

How to Boost Your On-the-Job Bliss

These tips will power up your pleasure quotient, no matter how frazzled you are: 

1. Buddy up with co-workers.

According to Riggio, cultivating positive personal relationships with colleagues is one of the most powerful sources of workplace satisfaction. To enhance those bonds, try performing random acts of kindness during the day, from picking up a coffee for your cubemate to complimenting someone for a brilliant idea they brought up in a meeting. Occasionally socializing at work will also make being office-bound feel a little more entertaining and a little less of a drag.

“On top of that, when you do something nice for somebody else, they will feel indebted to you and more likely to pay it forward with a thoughtful act directed toward you,” Riggio adds. “It’s a very strong psychological effect called ‘the norm of reciprocity.’” Everybody wins!

2. Take control of your work schedule (as much as you can).

“Autonomy is one of the characteristics we see again and again in jobs that are proven to be both motivating and satisfying,” Riggio says. “So take measures to increase the control you have over your own work.”

The survey found that more than one-third of people said having greater flexibility would increase their happiness and reduce burnout, so talk to your boss about how to make your schedule better fit your needs — such as working from home once a week, or leaving a few hours early every Wednesday.

If HR isn’t cool with DIY timetables, then take charge in other ways. For example: If there’s a project that needs to get done, figure out your own way to complete the task instead of doing it the way it’s always been done. 

3. Find meaning in your work.

Another key to strong job happiness is believing that what you’re doing has significance. “Studies have found that, despite working long hours, teachers are generally satisfied,” Riggio says. “They are molding young minds and can see the progress their students make over the course of the year.” Take a step back now and then to soak in the big picture of how your contributions are having an impact, from raising your firm’s stock price to landing a new client. 

This works for anyone, by the way, no matter how trivial your job may seem. “A janitor, for example, can recognize how a clean environment enhances the customers’ experience, which plays a role in increasing sales,” Kerns points out.

4. Challenge yourself.

When you’re already worked to the bone, the last thing you feel like doing is taking on tougher stuff. But hear us out: Raising your hand for assignments that are outside your comfort zone and that will engage your brain yields greater satisfaction. “Not only does this single you out as a valuable employee, but it also helps you develop on the job,” Riggio says. “Every so often, take stock of how your skill set has expanded during your career trajectory.” Seeing growth there can be deeply gratifying.

Read This Next: The 10 Healthiest Ways to Relieve Work Stress

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