Stressed employee with huge workload

The Causes of Unsustainable Workloads

In a previous article, we explored what burnout is and why it happens. We identified four pivotal categories of demands and resources that act like weights on a seesaw: task, relational, psychological, and physiological.

This article will zoom in on the workload aspect. Workload can be seen as the balance of demands and resources that relate to job tasks. High workloads make burnout more likely. In a recent survey encompassing 9500 employees spanning 17 countries, employees ranked workload as the number one driver of burnout. An array of studies now show that workload is consistently associated with burnout (e.g. O’Connor, 2018; Shirom et al., 2009).

In this post, we’ll delve deeper into the root causes for these unsustainable workloads. This term was introduced to me by my esteemed colleague, Dr. Denise Quinlan at NZIWR. She says, “the fracking of human resources has to stop. It’s time for organisations, and all of us working in them, to commit to human sustainability as a priority.” I couldn’t agree more. Without that commitment, workloads become unsustainable, pushed by an imbalance of environmental factors.

The Importance of Environment

As humans, we respond and adapt to the environments we find ourselves in. These responses are rooted in fundamental motivations that have historically served us well. To understand why burnout has reached epidemic levels, we must investigate the economic, cultural, and technological landscape that surrounds us. We are so immersed in them that we seldom notice how profoundly they influence our workloads.

Take a moment to glance at the infographic below. It summarises the main environmental factors behind unsustainable workloads that we’ll delve into throughout this article.

The Burnout Economy

In the world of business, well-being often takes a backseat. In economic terms, it’s largely an ‘externality’ — a factor that it is not reflected in the price of goods and services. This creates a rather skewed system, one laden with economic pressures that carry major consequences. Specifically, it pressures organisations to prioritise short-term productivity over sustainable workloads and well-being. I’ve coined this environment “The Burnout Economy”.

The Economic Pressure for Productivity

In our economic landscape, most consumers care only about what goods and services cost in terms of money and time, not well-being. They seek higher quality and better value for their money, yet have no visibility into the well-being of the individuals that provide their goods and services. The market tends to reward productivity, not well-being.

Shareholders, too, find themselves in a similar position, as most have limited visibility into the well-being of the workforce. Their decisions are mainly driven by financial metrics, and as a result, the stock market tends to reward short-term productivity over staff well-being. Despite this, for almost all of 20th century, directors and executives of large corporations kept well-being in mind. They believed they served not only shareholders, but also employees and broader society (Stout, 2013). This view was jettisoned amid the rise of “shareholder primacy” (Stout, 2012), which places shareholder returns firmly above the well-being of staff.

Lastly, well-being is an externality for taxpayers, too. They want to get the most from every tax dollar. While they hold some concern for the well-being of public servants such as teachers and healthcare workers, their own financial interests take precedence. Many of us yearn for lower taxes, but this desire pressures governments to tighten their budgets, often relegating well-being to a secondary concern.

Stressed Leaders Stress People

This pressure for increased productivity inevitably flows down to organisations and their leaders, who must find ways to do more with less to remain competitive. Companies that fail to keep pace risk going out of business. A recent global survey by UKG underscores this point, revealing that 35% of C-level leaders report being “often” or “always” stressed about work.

It is easy to see how this pressure on leaders translates to higher job demands and fewer resources for employees. Stressed leaders, grappling with the imperative of productivity, often prioritise it over the well-being of their staff, who often remain strangers to them in a hectic work environment. For example, in the 2000’s, HMRC introduced lean management techniques and layoffs to increase productivity. Only 1% of staff reported feeling “very pressurised” prior to the changes, whereas 63% felt that level of pressure after the changes (Carter et al., 2011).

We live in an economic environment that gives well-being no place, and the pressure it applies is ever-rising. In light of these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that 44% of employees experience stress during “a lot of the day” — and that figure is steadily rising.

We live in an economic environment that gives well-being no place, and the pressure it applies is ever-rising.

Work intensity, not just hours worked

Higher demands often increase work intensity rather than work hours. “It’s not just the hours we’re working, it’s the way we’re working”, says Dr Denise Quinlan. “Work intensity is a greater driver of burnout than just hours worked.” She highlights that diminished autonomy — workers’ control over when and how they complete tasks — is a key aspect of rising work intensity. During the introduction of lean management at HMRC, for example, workers reported a drastic shift from having a lot of autonomy to having just a little or none at all (Carter et al., 2011).

Burnout Culture

Burnout Culture is the widespread prioritisation of work over well-being. It’s a pervasive cultural, social, and technological milieu that that gradually instils certain values in individuals. These values, in turn, exert internal motivational pressure, propelling people towards unsustainable workloads.

The endless pursuit of more

Within Burnout Culture, employees overlook or sacrifice their present well-being in pursuit of an elusive future. This behaviour may be fuelled, in part, by the selective nature of social media, where others’ achievements and highlights take centre stage while the associated trade-offs remain concealed. Regardless of the reasons, there is never ‘enough’. It is not enough to enjoy a moderate modern life — which is surely luxury by any historical standard. As Jess Stuart shared with me, “we’re stuck in the pursuit of more is always better.”

The rewards of unsustainable workload

In most organisations, hard work is applauded, and it’s rare to find strict upper limits on how much one can contribute. The more effort employees invest, the more they tend to be rewarded by the system, even when their workloads become unsustainable.

In today’s society, individuals who are willing to prioritise their work over personal well-being and manage to accomplish more are rewarded by leaders, who preferentially hire or promote them. These leaders, in turn, receive recognition from higher-ups when their team members make such sacrifices to boost productivity. This dynamic extends up the hierarchical ladder, creating a system that rewards staff who push their limits at the cost of their own well-being.

The bandwagon effect

These tendencies aren’t as problematic when only a few people in an organisation have unsustainable workloads. If “normal” simply means not working excessively, then one can work sustainably and be at no disadvantage.

I believe the dynamic has shifted in many organisations due to a psychological phenomenon known as the bandwagon effect (Brinda et al., 2022). As an increasing number of people hop onto the Burnout Culture bandwagon, expectations evolve and make it increasingly risky to shun unsustainable workloads. It can make the same choice to work sustainable hours be seen as ‘disengaged’ or ‘uncommitted.’ Increased competition for roles makes matters even worse. Saying ‘no’ to longer hours can jeopardise one’s career prospects, especially in the face of candidates who are willing. The individual is likely to instead join the bandwagon, strengthening the effect.

The shining stars of Burnout Culture, the high-achievers, want to “get ahead” of their peers, so they work harder. As more people jump on the bandwagon and intensify their efforts, the high-achievers find themselves working even harder to maintain their lead. Even those who merely aim to ‘keep up’ inevitably get caught in the whirlwind. It becomes a never-ending cycle of mounting pressure that pushes individuals to adopt what Nick Petrie aptly calls the “relentless work ethic”.

The unspoken message of Burnout Culture is crystal clear: risking an unsustainable workload is worth it. To those deeply entrenched in this culture, that may not seem problematic. Yet, it is. If people each work so intensely that they have a “low” 20% risk of burnout, then 20% of them will eventually burn out. Burnout Culture has made it not only acceptable but seemingly worthwhile for employees themselves to chase unsustainable workloads, ultimately leading many to compromise their well-being through stress and burnout.

The unspoken message of Burnout Culture is crystal clear: risking an unsustainable workload is worth it.


In our modern era, rapid transportation and nearly instant global communication have ushered in an unprecedented wave of globalisation. As a proportion of GDP, international trade has tripled since 1950 (Feenstra et al., 2015). One of the notable consequences of this shift is the erosion of a significant constraint on economic pressure: localised markets for goods and services.

Localised markets historically operated with limited competition. For instance, if you were the sole provider of a service like horseshoeing in your town, you didn’t have to toil endless hours because you had a monopoly. Fast forward to today’s knowledge-based economy with a globally mobile workforce, and organisations and workers find themselves exposed to markets worldwide. Six in ten Millennials, who are expected to comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025, are willing to work abroad (Deloitte Global Mobility Trends, 2021). With this expanded reach comes intensified competition, which, in turn, amplifies the pressure.

A closely related change is the ever-accelerating pace of trade. In the past, delays were the norm, as everyone expected processes to take their time. With today’s lightning-fast transportation and communication, expectations have adapted to match this speed. We now anticipate results in shorter and shorter timeframes. Employees can start to drown the rising tide of these heightened expectations.


Technology, including computers and smartphones, has played a pivotal role in the above changes. These devices have not only shaped our world but have also made it possible to be constantly available for work. The greater flexibility they offer has been associated with lower burnout (Ter Hoeven et al., 2016).

However, the technology is a double-edged sword, for it opened a new avenue to greater workloads. With the ability to communicate from virtually anywhere, at any time, and in any situation, expectations have risen. Research dating as far back as 2006 has shown that the use of mobile technology outside of normal working hours tends increase workload (e.g. Tower et al., 2006). More recent studies have linked it with burnout (e.g. Terry & Mathews, 2021).

Laptops and smartphones have transformed our time away from the office and blurred the boundaries between work and personal life. Without careful structure in place, this makes it harder for many to psychologically detach from work (Mellner, 2016). In a survey by Unispace, employees ranked this pressure to ‘always be on’ as the third-highest contributor to burnout, trailing only behind workload and time spent in the office.

Research backs up this view and shows that constant connectivity can elevate stress. It can increase time spend ruminating about work, trigger unpleasant emotions, and contribute to insomnia (Park et al., 2020). Furthermore, the unpredictable interruptions due to device use outside of normal work hours have been linked with burnout (Ter Hoeven et al., 2016). With cultural boundaries struggling to catch up, mobile technology has robbed us of the times and spaces that once served as safe-havens of mental recovery.


The intertwined forces of technology and globalisation have ushered in exponential increases in business Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA, Hinine & Dinar, 2022). Today, it’s hard to know how much is “enough”. One can easily feel like unforeseen crises loom just beyond the horizon of almost every project, creating a palpable pressure for leaders that can easily flow to the team.

The unpredictability of the VUCA environment also makes workloads more variable. Previous generations enjoyed greater certainty about the work tasks required. With a slow rate of change, leaders had more time to adjust predictions and take actions to redistribute workloads in advance. In contrast, our contemporary landscape is full of unpredictable changes and unforeseen obstacles. The work required for tasks is much harder to predict. It’s now all too easy for leaders and teams to find themselves suddenly over-committed, faced with no ideal choices. When difficult decisions are made, sustainable workloads often become the casualty of perceived necessity.

Non-work activities

As work time encroaches on non-work activities, it creates work-life conflict. Longer work hours consume the time available for valued non-work activities. Not surprisingly, work-life conflict increases likelihood of burnout (e.g. Zhou et al., 2020; Lee at al., 2013; Umene-Nakano et al., 2013; Brauchli et al., 2011). Technology use outside of work hours also contributes to this kind of conflict (e.g. Wright et al., 2014).

Work-life conflict seems to not affect all workers equally. Average working hours per week have actually decreased since 1870 and time off for vacations has increased (Huberman & Minns, 2007). In contrast, the evidence suggests that the people who burn out are often those who work far more than average hours and thus have greater potential for work-life conflict (e.g. Hu et al., 2016).

The impact of work-life conflict goes beyond mere displacement of activities — the particular kinds of displaced activities can be critical. The activities that replenish energy and nurture well-being are often most discretionary, making them the first casualties of work-life conflict. Consequently, work-life conflict tends to corrode the very activities that employees rely on to recuperate from their demanding workloads.

What can leaders do?

The odds are often stacked against sustainable workloads. As leaders, we must create more balanced workplaces, by weakening the forces pulling our employees toward unsustainable workloads and adding forces that provide restraint. To this end, here are four measures that all go hand-in-hand to consider:

  1. Make well-being and engagement strategic priorities. Changing the work environment begins at the top, and it needs executive support and commitment.
  2. Replace Burnout Culture with Well-being Culture. Build a culture that values, recognises, and celebrates well-being, energy, and positive emotion over heartless productivity. Authentic leadership can help nurture a Well-being Culture.
  3. Create the conditions for engagement. Burnout rates are low where engagement is high (e.g. Halbesleben, 2010; Cole et al., 2012). Leaders can create the conditions for engagement, rather than exhaustion. Approaches such as autonomy support and participative leadership can help to support engagement.
  4. Cultivate workload responsivity. With workloads fluctuating more unpredictably, foster a work environment in which it is normal to notice and correct unsustainable workloads. Staff must recognise stress and feel more inclined to speak up than to say nothing. Servant leadership, empathy, appreciation, and kindness can help to forge this kind of work environment.


This post has begun to explore one of the largest factors that contributes to burnout — workload. In my next article, will delve into the four measures I’ve outlined above in more detail to explain why they can make a huge difference. In later articles, I’ll explore the social, psychological, and physiological factors that contribute to burnout.

Please contribute your thoughts to the conversation as well by adding your comments! We’re all learning together.

Thanks to Dr. Denise Quinlan for her sharing her valuable perspective, knowledge, and time to contribute to this article.

Thanks also to Jess Stuart for her insightful comments around burnout while I was putting this article together.

#leadership #burnout #workload

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Drawing on over a decade of research into the science of how individuals, leaders, and teams work best, Reuben is a trusted advisor and partner for navigating complex challenges. His articles distil complex ideas and present practical insights, so you don't have to do the research yourself. With an authentic approach and genuine empathy for his clients, Reuben is a valuable asset to any organisation.

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