Burnout is Caused By Mismatch Between Unconscious Needs and Job Demands



Burnout is an erosion of motivation that results from mismatch between the employees’ unconscious needs or implicit motives and job demands and opportunities

Burnout affects the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the employee

It reduces work productivity, increases work-related stress, absenteeism and increases the financial burden on the economy

To reduce burnout, it is always preferable to select applicants whose implicit motives match the characteristics of the open position

Burnout is a condition that arises due to the physical, mental and emotional state of exhaustion from work. It results in lack of motivation, low efficiency and a feeling of helplessness.

New research shows that burnout is caused by a mismatch between a person’s subconscious needs and the opportunities and demands at the workplace. These results have implications for the prevention of job burnout.

Imagine an accountant who is outgoing and seeks closeness in her social relationships, but whose job offers little scope for contact with colleagues or clients. Now imagine a manager, required to take responsibility for a team, but who does not enjoy taking center-stage or being in a leadership role. For both, there is a mismatch between their individual needs and the opportunities and demands at the workplace. A new study in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology shows that such mismatches put employees at risk of burnout.

The American Institute of Stress estimates the total cost at US$ 300 billion per year to American enterprises, while a 2012 study commissioned by the Health Programme of the European Union estimates the annual cost at 272 billion euros to EU enterprises.

A new study by researchers from the Universities of Zurich and Leipzig has established that burnout arises due to a mismatch between a person’s unconscious needs and wants and the opportunities and demands that arise at workplace. The study results published in the open-access journal Frontiers of Psychology have implications for the prevention of burnout.


Imagine an accountant is out-going and seeks closeness in the personal relationships. But the job offers limited access to colleagues and clients. In another situation a person is put in the role of a manager when he does not enjoy taking center-stage or being in the role of a leader. In both the scenarios there is a mismatch between what the employees want and what their jobs demand from them. This results in burnout.

The research team states that the unconscious needs which are also known as implicit motives play an important role in development of burnout. A mismatch between the implicit motives and job characters can cause burnout. There are two types of implicit motives:
Power Motive – To feel strong and self-efficacious there is the need to take responsibility for others, to maintain discipline and to engage in arguments or negotiation.

Affiliation Motive – The need for positive personal relations in order to feel trustworthy, warm and belonged.

Too much or not enough scope of either of the motives in comparison with the individual needs can also result in burnout.

“We found that the frustration of unconscious affective needs, caused by a lack of opportunities for motive-driven behavior, is detrimental to psychological and physical well-being. The same is true for goal-striving that doesn’t match a well-developed implicit motive for power or affiliation, because then excessive effort is necessary to achieve that goal. Both forms of mismatch act as ‘hidden stressors’ and can cause burnout,” says the leading author, Veronika Brandstätter, Professor of Psychology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Researchers recruited 97 people from the age of 22 years to 62 years through the Swiss Burnout website, a forum for Swiss people suffering from burnout. They had to complete a questionnaire on their physical well-being, degree of burnout and their job characteristics including the job opportunities and demands.

The strength of implicit motives varies from person to person. It cannot be measured directly through self-reports since they are mostly unconscious. Researchers used an inventive method asking participants to write imaginative short stories to describe five pictures, which showed an architect, trapeze artists, women in a laboratory, a boxer, and a nightclub scene. The stories were analyzed for sentences about positive personal relations between persons (which expressed the affiliation motive) or about persons who have influence on others ( thus expressing the power motive), by trained coders. Participants who used many positive sentences in their story received a higher score for the corresponding implicit motive.

The results showed that the more the mismatch between someone’s affiliation motive and the scope for enhancing personal relations at the job, the higher the risk of burnout. Similarly, adverse physical symptoms, such as headache, chest pain, faintness, and shortness of breath, became more apparent with increasing mismatch between an employee’s power motive and the scope for influence at workplace. Results also suggest that immediate interventions could reverse the risk of burnouts and increase well-being and productivity at work.

“A starting point could be to select job applicants in such a way that their implicit motives match the characteristics of the open position. Another strategy could be so-called “job crafting”, where employees proactively try to enrich their job in order to meet their individual needs. For example, an employee with a strong affiliation motive might handle her duties in a more collaborative way and try to find ways to do more teamwork,” says Brandstätter.

“A motivated workforce it the key to success in today’s globalized economy. Here, we need innovative approaches that go beyond providing attractive working conditions. Matching employees’ motivational needs to their daily activities at work might be the way forward. This may also help to address growing concerns about employee mental health, since burnout is essentially an erosion of motivation. To do so, we must increasingly take account of motivational patterns in the context of occupational stress research, and study person-environment-fit across entire organizations and industries,” says Beate Schulze, a Senior Researcher at the Department of Social and Occupational Medicine of the University of Leipzig and Vice-President of the Swiss Expert Network on Burnout.


  1. Burnout is caused by mismatch between unconscious needs and job demands– (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-08/f-bic080816.php)

Read the full article in Frontiers in  Psychology.