Low-intensity work can exacerbate burnout

me not long after suffering burnout
Me in September 2018, getting ready to present a conference paper. I had just reached out to a psychologist to help me manage the stress.

Last year I burnt myself out. I was working a full time job as a lecturer while writing a novel, publishing poetry, and trying to maintain a freelance career and author platform. I was doing too much. I’ve since worked hard to cut down on the amount of work I take on outside of my full-time job, thinking that the issue was that I was working too many hours. I told myself if I cut back, I’d be okay again (I wrote about some of these experiences here).

Then, a few days ago, The Guardian posted an article on burnout. They said that, while burnout can be caused by excessive overtime and high-intensity work, it can also be exacerbated by our use of technology. I’m not talking about spending too much time on Facebook.

Johanna Leggatt, writing for The Guardian, says that technology has created a lot of meaningless, low-intensity work, such as “compliance training, filling out forms, online time sheets” (Leiter as cited in Leggatt, 2019).

David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, shares the same sentiment as Leggatt saying that, despite earlier predictions, technology has not led to automation of work and a 15 hour working week (2018). Instead it has led to jobs and tasks that are “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence” (Graeber, 2018). Technology has increasingly lead to us feeling like we’ve become stagnant in our jobs and it’s causing cynicism.

Until now, it had never occurred to me that low-intensity work could exacerbate burnout.

So, what is burnout?

It took me a while to realise I was suffering from burnout. I thought I just wasn’t coping with the workload I’d set myself. Then I started telling people how I was spending my time. Many were impressed with how much I was achieving, and I was repeatedly asked how I’d been managing it. I thought, maybe I’m not being reasonable with myself after all.

I changed to a lower intensity workload, giving up or stepping away from a lot of ongoing projects, but I was still struggling. I’d filled in the newly formed gaps in my schedule with hours of administration work and planning. I started blaming myself all over again, using this as proof that I was the problem.

So what exactly is burnout?

Well, first of all, it isn’t a medical condition (World Health Organisation, 2019). However, it is a workplace phenomenon, and it occurs as the result of long-term chronic stress (World Health Organisation, 2019).

The ABC’s Michael Musker explains that “When we exceed our ability to cope, something has to give; the body becomes stressed if you push yourself either mentally or physically beyond your capacity” (Musker, 2019).

The World Health Organisation defines burn out as including:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy (World Health Organisation, 2019).

The high-intensity trigger

I’ve always been very good at doing a lot with very little time. I can work very fast, but also very efficiently and to a high standard, but it isn’t sustainable long term. In many of my previous jobs, this has put me at a disadvantage  – I would end up getting more work when I’d finish a task early. This would result in me working at a high-intensity for prolonged periods of time.

I eventually adapted to working this way, managing my own time outside of work to achieve more and reach my goals faster. This means I get very bored when doing low-intensity work.

The initial trigger for my stress was my high-intensity workload, which was identified by the NTEU as a mental health risk. They go on to identify other risks including new forms of work, job insecurity, an ageing workforce, high emotional demands and poor work-life balance (Gooding, 2019a).

You’ll notice that Leggatt and Graeber’s concerns with technology and menial work aren’t considered, even when Gooding summarises the hazards identified by Safe Work Australia (SWA) in their guidelines on work-related psychological health. This is because, while low-intensity work can exacerbate the condition, it hasn’t proven to be a cause on it’s own.  SWA’s hazards do mention work intensification:

“The comprehensive list of psycho-social hazards that SWA [Safe Work Australia] has identified will be horribly familiar to NTEU members. They include long work hours and high workloads, workplace bullying, aggression and harassment, lack of fairness and equity, poor management of performance issues, inadequate consultation about workplace change, inconsistent applications of policies, and workers not being involved in decisions that affect them” (Gooding, 2019a).

High-intensity workload and excessive overtime is a major cause of burnout. Coupled with the cynicism caused by menial tasks and low-intensity work, it’s a recipe for disaster. In a study focusing on staff workloads in academia, the NTEU found that 62% of academic staff undertook work before 8am or after 8pm over 4 days a week (National Tertiary Education Union, n.d.). It’s no wonder I felt like my own high workload was normal.

Smith et al touch on the difference between stress and burnout, which is important to consider when we look at how work viewed as meaningless could delay recovery. They explain that stress is characterised by over-engagement and over-reactive emotions, while burnout is characterised by disengagement and blunted emotions (Smith et al, 2019). Burnout is as much something that can be caused by an inability to find pleasure in your work or see it as meaningful, as it can be caused from feeling overworked and exploited.

I found myself fluctuating between both of these, justifying the higher periods of intensity with the respite I would give myself in doing tasks that were easy, but not enjoyable.

Gender and burnout: blaming yourself

Low-intensity triggers are also a common issue for women with Montreal University finding that they’re more likely to suffer burnout that men (Leggatt, 2019).

When analysing the results of this study, InHerSight claim that long hours and high-intensity work weren’t the only problems for women. They attributed the high levels of burnout to a lack of promotion and poor opportunities, saying women didn’t get to work as many exciting projects as their male colleagues (and, therefore, didn’t find their work as meaningful):  “the women in this study didn’t experience burnout because they worked long hours; it was because they felt stagnant” (2019).

Surprisingly, chores were not a factor in burnout but actually helped in the short-term to reduce stress by providing a distraction from work-related stress (InHerSight, 2019).

While gender isn’t the only thing at play here (overtime and high-intensity work being universal), it does have a role in how we cope. Writing for the NTEU, Gabe Gooding says that women often don’t acknowledge the problem for what it is; “when I talk to women about these issues [stress and burnout], it is extraordinary how many tell me about how they are made to feel that if they can’t get the job done in their working hours, it’s because they aren’t coping” (2019b).

I very much fell into this statistic. I was convinced that my inability to get all the work done was a failing on my part. It didn’t occur to me for a long time that I was setting unreasonable expectations. My inability to cope with low-intensity work further fed into this internal narrative.

What can you do to get better?

The biggest player here is your employer. Mental health and mental hazards need to be taken as seriously as hazards that might call physical injuries. The NTEU explain that “Employers have an obligation to remove risks, then if they are not able to be removed, to mitigate against them and reduce the impact” (Gooding, 2019a).

Mitigating risks also isn’t about providing tools to deal with injury once it occurs (such as employee assistance programs), but about preventing the damage. As Safe Work Australia observes “a psychologically healthy and safe workplace does not happen by chance or guesswork” (Gooding, 2019a). This is why it’s critical to have an effective employee feedback collection software in place in order to gauge your employees’ morale and to determine what you can do to improve their working environment.

On a smaller scale though, what can you do personally?

Well, to start with, regardless of whether you have experienced burnout or at risk of it, reach out to those closest to you, you won’t be a burden (Smith et al, 2019; Gooding, 2019b). Also make sure you engage with colleagues and build friendships (Smith et al). These can help build your resilience against burnout as they give you a reason to enjoy going in to work.

Another tip, and something that has helped me personally is to re-frame the way you look at your job. Focus on the aspects you enjoy, and think about the value you add to people’s lives by doing it (Smith et al, 2019).

Most importantly, set boundaries. Say no to requests on your time that are unmanageable (Musker, 2019; Smith et al, 2019), or to tasks that are time consuming and dull. If you need to say no, explain clearly, but politely why you do not feel you should do the task and, if possible, offer alternatives or compromises. Also ask for a role on the projects that excite you.

Finally, if you really aren’t coping, take time off (Muster, 2019, Smith et al, 2019; Laggatt, 2019). Remove yourself from the situation causing the stress. Learn from the women doing housework and find other tasks to take your mind off work; exercise, start a creative hobby, clean the house!


InHerSight. (2019). Why Working Women Struggle With Burnout. InHerSight. Retrieved 17 October 2019, from https://www.inhersight.com/blog/insight-commentary/why-working-women-struggle-with-burnout?_n=45976578#

National Tertiary Education Union. (n.d.). Workloads. NTEU: National Tertiary Education Union. Retrieved 17 October 2019, from https://www.nteu.org.au/policy/workforce_issues/workloads

World Health Organisation. (2019). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization. Retrieved 17 October 2019, from https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/

Gooding, G. (2019a). Is your workplace safe? Is it healthy? Advocate 26(02). NTEU: National Tertiary Education Union. Retrieved 17 October 2019, from https://www.nteu.org.au/article/Is-your-workplace-safe%3F-Is-it-healthy%3F-%28Advocate-26-02%29-21456

Gooding, G. (2019b). Let’s talk about stress in Barnes, A (ed). Agenda 27. NTEU: National Tertiary Education Union.

Graeber, D. (2018). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Sydney:Penguin Books Australia.

Leggatt, J. (2019). Out of control: is too much work the real cause of burnout? The Guardian. Retrieved 17 October 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/oct/10/out-of-control-is-too-much-work-the-real-cause-of-burnout

Musker, M. (2019). The four questions that prove you’re burnt out at work. ABC News. Retrieved 17 October 2019, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-04/workplace-stress-burnout-symptoms-and-signs-diagnosis/11174404

Smith et al. (2019). Burnout Prevention and Treatment. Help Guide. Retrieved 17 October 2019, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm

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