Skip to main content

Uncertainty and lack of meaning at work fuel burnout

Reducing ambiguities is one strategy to prevent this health issue, according to a study by Concordia researchers
April 2, 2024

View from above of laptop, to do list, smartphone and pen on desk Photo by Jessica Lewis on unsplash

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions around burnout in the workplace have grown. This phenomenon is about more than just feeling overwhelmed: it’s an important work-related health problem that has major repercussions for individuals and organizations.

Burnout predicts job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, insomnia, hospitalization for cardiovascular and mental disorders and premature death. Between 2 to 13 per cent of workers suffer from severe burnout.

In a study as part of his PhD thesis, “On Uncertainty: How Goals Influence Work Meaningfulness and Burnout,” Joé G. Leduc surveyed 598 employees working under a direct supervisor. The study was conducted with Leduc’s thesis supervisor Kathleen Boies, a professor in the Department of Management and Concordia University Research Chair in Leadership Development.

The survey considered recent advances in neuropsychology which suggest a tight link between stress, meaning and uncertainty. Meanings are defined as perceived possibilities for action in relation to a goal. Uncertainty arises when we are unable to see a clear path towards our goal.

The results of the study show that uncertainty at work is much more strongly related to burnout than common work stressors such as high assigned workload, high responsibility, high job complexity and time pressures. The main sources of uncertainty were role ambiguity, role conflict and absence of leader vision. These sources of uncertainty were strongly associated with a sense of meaninglessness and a lack of positive emotions, both promoting burnout among subordinates.

Leduc and Boies suggest the following ways for organizations to prevent burnout among employees:

  1. Communicating clear goals: Managers and supervisors can provide clear and specific short-term goals and expectations to each of their employees about how to perform in their roles. Leaders should focus on reducing ambiguities in subordinates’ roles before eliminating the level of difficulty or challenge in their work.
  2. Promoting a vision: Leaders can share an appealing long-term vision with their subordinates which answers the questions, “what are we striving towards?” and “why does it matter?” Organizations should ensure that leaders and subordinates have a clear sense of the long-term purpose of their work through surveys and interviews.
  3. Providing written interventions: Managers can give workers the opportunity to write down their personal life goals for the next three to five years in the areas of work, family and leisure and to reflect on how their work contributes to reaching these goals.
  4. Clarifying authority structure: Organizations can reduce the impact of conflicting information by specifying whose authority subordinates should prioritize in the presence of competing goals and expectations.
  5. Encouraging purposefulness: Encourage employees to engage in the long-term vision of their work unit and reach out to their supervisor when their role becomes unclear, or when they need clarification on the expectations and evolution of their role.

Leduc and Boies’ study suggests that hard work is not the main source of burnout. The real culprit is a lack of clarity about how to perform one’s work role and about the long-term purpose of the work being done. Continually working towards unclear goals with no clear purpose seems more likely to generate burnout than working diligently towards clear goals that serve a long-term purpose, say Leduc and Boies.

The two researchers agree that by communicating clear short-term goals embedded within an appealing long-term vision, leaders can promote the experience of meaningfulness and positive emotions in workers, substantially curtailing their risks of burnout.

Joé G. Leduc, PhD student

Joé G. Leduc is a PhD student in organizational behavior at the John Molson School of Business. He has presented his research in multiple conferences and research expositions such as the annual conference of the North American Society for Sport Management, the John Molson School of Business Annual Graduate Research Exposition (AGRE) and ACFAS’s 90th annual scientific congress. His research projects have received competitive scholarships from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec—Société et Culture (FRQSC) and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). He holds a doctoral graduate fellowship from Concordia University.

Back to top Back to top

© Concordia University