The 12 Causes of Burnout in Middle Managers

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Introduction to the Causes of Burnout in Middle Managers

The term burnout has found its way into common language and is sometimes used to describe someone who is feeling bad about their work environment; however, it is more correctly referred to as ‘burnout syndrome’.  and some professionals prefer to classify it according to one of the DSM diagnoses like depression or anxiety.  Some symptoms can suggest a traditional psychological diagnosis, but its origin, the workplace, makes it worthy of separate discussion.

In an earlier article, I discussed how to recognise burnout, while this article will discuss the causes of burnout.  Many of the causes lie with the employer and the work culture of the corporation, while the psychological vulnerabilities of the employee might also play a role.  Either way though, when someone in the workplace experiences burnout, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure the person finds remedies to help them regain their health[1].

Defining Burnout

I discussed a definition of burnout in the earlier article about recognising burnout, and if you haven’t already reviewed that article, I encourage you to do so.  For our purpose though, a useful working definition of burnout is a psychosocial condition which is:

A state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by feelings of cynicism, detachment, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. It is typically associated with prolonged exposure to stress and high demands, especially in the workplace. Burnout can impact various aspects of a person’s life, including their performance at work, personal relationships, and overall well-being.

The causes of this condition are, a result of prolonged exposure to ‘stress and high demands’ and it is noted that this usually comes from the workplace.  Of course, the workplace isn’t the only situation where stress occurs, and it is possible to experience burnout to stressful situations in one’s private life, but here, we are discussing the impact of stress in the work environment.  Of note, one group of people who are often affected by burnout are the so called ‘middle-managers’ of an organisation.  This often occurs because middle managers are often selected from people who have been rewarded for doing a good job by being promoted.  Naturally, the promotion comes with an improved title and salary.  However, it is not always recognised that being a manager requires different skills, particularly being able to manage people.  The vast majority of people promoted to middle management have never actually been taught how to manage people.  It is therefore also not uncommon to find that middle managers find themselves experiencing prolonged stress because of these challenges.  These people are more likely to experience symptoms of burnout.

Causes of Burnout in the Workplace

Developing a workplace culture that provides a positive environment for everyone pays dividends.  There is good evidence that a workplace with a strong workplace culture will be more productive, produce higher profits, and even generate stronger share prices[2].

While employers typically aim to create positive and productive work environments, certain conditions and practices within an organization can inadvertently contribute to burnout.  The following list describes ways an employer might encourage someone to develop a burnout syndrome[3].

  1. Excessive Workload. When an employer assigns consistently high workloads or sets unrealistic expectations then stress levels are likely to be high.  When this occurs, not providing adequate resources exacerbates the experience of chronic stress and fatigue.  These two elements, alone or together, contribute to the onset of burnout syndrome.  This is a particular issue for middle managers; those who have not received appropriate training and mentoring will be at even greater risk. 
  2. Unclear Expectations. Unclear expectations contribute to the development of burnout syndrome.  Clear expectations are important, they allow the person to feel they are achieving their goals.  When expectations are not communicated clearly, particularly when it relates to someone’s job expectations, roles, and responsibilities, creates confusion and frustration. 
  3. Lack of Autonomy. When someone feels they are being ‘micromanaged’, they experience a loss of autonomy.  This encourages feelings of disempowerment and contributes to burnout.  It is important to ensure that people have a reasonable level of control over their work and activities.  Autonomy is an essential feature for the development of motivation and confidence, self-esteem, and well-being.
  4. Poor Work-Life Balance. Some companies encourage a culture of overworking and people are expected to consistently work for long hours. This does not support the development of a so called ‘work-life balance’ and generates a sense of that a person cannot ever escape from work.  It is important for companies to encourage their employees to find time to encourage self-care and foster a healthy personal life.
  5. Inadequate Resources. An employer who fails to provide the necessary tools, technology, or resources needed to allow an employee to perform their tasks efficiently contributes to burnout.  When someone is working to achieve goals, but they aren’t provided with the adequate tools, then the person is likely to feel frustrated and overworked.
  6. Lack of Recognition and Feedback. Another element that contributes to the development of burnout is an employer’s failure to acknowledge and appreciate an employees’ contributions. This results in a lack of motivation and job satisfaction; it also contributes to the lowering of self-esteem and confidence.
  7. Limited Career Development Opportunities. Roles that offer limited opportunities for professional growth, career advancement, or skill development, leads to employees feeling stagnant and unfulfilled; stagnation contributes to burnout.  Career advancement provides hope and aspiration for a future, which helps build hope and positivity for the person. 
  8. Unmanageable Time Pressure. Similar to setting unreasonable expectations, imposing tight and unrealistic deadlines without considering the time required to get the work done, creates chronic stress and undermines the employees’ sense of well-being.  An employer needs to be careful to set reasonable goals to be achieved in a reasonable period.  Of course, there may be periods when time pressures are excessive, but they should not become a ‘normal expectation’ and these pressures should be limited to specific periods for specific tasks.
  9. Negative Workplace Culture. A toxic workplace culture is characterised by poor communication, a lack of collaboration, or interpersonal conflicts, and can contribute to a stressful environment. People who work in a toxic workplace culture fosters burnout.  In many workplaces, having someone experiencing some form of burnout is not uncommon, but in a corporation with a toxic workplace culture, it is common to see a number of people experiencing problems – it is a warning sign that the culture of the company needs attention.
  10. Inadequate Support Systems. When an employer fails to provide adequate support for employees facing challenges, whether personal or work-related, creates a situation where the individuals feel isolated and overwhelmed.  This creates an opportunity for the development of burnout syndrome.  It is important to emphasise that while most people think about burnout coming from work stresses, when someone is experiencing personal challenges, those challenges come to the work environment as well.  Some employers are aware of this and make efforts to ensure that their staff are supported no matter what the cause of the challenges.  Being aware of the wellbeing of individuals allows employers and their managers to respond to the stressors being experiencing by their employees.
  11. Insufficient Training and Development. When staff of any level in an organisation or not adequately trained to do their work, it goes without saying that they experience negative feelings.  This includes feelings of stagnation and reduced job satisfaction.  These problems increase the risk of burnout in the affected individuals.  One important group who miss out on appropriate training are junior and middle managers.  They tend to be brought into their job because they have been observed to be good at their job and are enthusiastic about their employment.  However, management requires different skills; it uses emotional intelligence or psychological awareness to help people understand others and make decisions based on those insights.  Middle managers are rarely given this training and it creates significant problems.
  12. Unrealistic Performance Expectations. When an employer has excessively high performance standards without considering the practical limitations creates a sense of constant pressure on those affected.  The person may find that they just can’t live up to the expectations, that they need to work longer hours to achieve the goals, and that they lose their work-life balance as their focus becomes solely about their work.  This creates a constant sense of pressure and stress and it is a potent cause of burnout syndrome.

Psychological Vulnerabilities of Burnout

Certain psychological vulnerabilities can increase an individual’s susceptibility to developing burnout. While burnout is often influenced by external factors such as work environment and organisational culture, individuals with specific psychological traits or tendencies may be more prone to experiencing burnout.  The list below highlights the extent of an individual’s vulnerability:

  1. Perfectionism. Individuals who have perfectionistic tendencies can set excessively high standards for themselves.  This leads to stress and frustration if their perfectionistic standards are not achieved.
  2. High Need for Achievement. A strong desire for success and achievement can drive individuals to push themselves beyond their limits, leading to a constant state of high stress and exhaustion.
  3. Type A Personality. Individuals with Type A personalities, characterised by competitiveness, impatience, and a high sense of urgency, may be more prone to burnout due to their persistent drive and difficulty relaxing.
  4. Overidentification with Work. When individuals derive a significant portion of their identity and self-worth from their work, they may be more susceptible to burnout as work-related stressors directly impact their self-esteem and overall well-being.
  5. Inability to Say No. Individuals who struggle with setting boundaries and saying no to additional responsibilities can easily find themselves overwhelmed with excessive workload.
  6. High Need for Approval. When someone needs constant approval and validation from others, and, when this is not forthcoming, the person experiences chronic stress.  Individuals strive harder to meet their perceived expectations and fear disappointing others.
  7. Low Self-Esteem. Individuals with low self-esteem and lack of confidence in their abilities, experience increased stress, especially when faced with challenging tasks.
  8. Lack of Coping Skills. People who have difficulty managing stress and a lack of effective coping mechanisms can make it challenging for individuals to navigate the demands of work and life.
  9. Tendency Toward Negative Thinking. Individuals who habitually engage in negative thinking patterns, like those who see catastrophic outcomes or who are always pessimistic, may be prone to experiencing an emotional toll.
  10. Procrastination. Chronic procrastination leads to increased stress as individuals struggle to meet deadlines and manage their workload effectively.
  11. Impaired Emotional Regulation. People who have difficulty regulating emotions, including heightened emotional reactivity or suppression, can contribute to the emotional distress that people experience in the face of personal and workplace stressors.
  12. Low Sense of Control. Feeling a lack of control over one’s work or life circumstances can contribute to a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.

These factors interact with the causes of burnout syndrome discussed above and when they coexist, burnout is more likely.  Interestingly, some of the vulnerabilities are also features that an employer might welcome in new employees.

Conclusion: Causes of Burnout in Middle Managers

This article predominantly focuses on the causes of burnout that come from the workplace.  Whenever a thoughtful employer observes someone experiencing burnout syndrome, they should consider each of these causes and try to establish what is happening in their own organisation that contributes to these problems.  The advantage of a lot of the causes is that each cause suggests a remedy.  An employer can create changes in the workplace culture, or issues focusing on the individual to make positive changes.

Middle managers are more prone to developing burnout, largely because they are often doing work that they were not originally trained for.

Get Hyperconnected

Hyperconnected is a book that helps someone experiencing problems with burnout, whether it’s the person with burnout, colleagues, managers, or the employer, to gain a better understanding of developing psychological awareness, managing conflict, and working with people. 

We also offer individual coaching for individuals and especially middle managers who experience a variety of challenges.  It helps people develop emotional intelligence and improves their management skills.  Most of our clients achieve promotions within the first 12 months after completing the program, it is well worth it.

If you would like to get a taste of how we work and what you can learn, then you should read my book, Hyperconnected.  It provides a clear understanding of the concepts important for your emotional intelligence which is the key to your success. 

Get you copy now, you won’t be disappointed.


[1] Based on the ‘eggshell rule’ or ’thin skin rule which says that even when a person has an unexpected frailty, there is no defence of an injury caused to them. So, if someone has their own psychological vulnerabilities to developing burnout, it remains the responsibility of the employer.  See Watts v Rake (1960) 108 CLR 158; Nader v Urban Transit Authority of NSW (1985) 2 NSWLR 501.

[2] Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron, ‘Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive’ (2015) 12(1) Harvard Business Review 44.

[3] G Parker, G Tavella and K Eyers, Burnout: A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Pathways to Recovery (Routledge, New York, 2023).

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Dr Schultz spent 22 years working in psychiatry and then went on to qualify as a lawyer. He has spent 34 years helping people solve problems and the unique combination of medicine, psychiatry, law and mediation provides a unique academic and practical approach to life's challenges.

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