On Purpose and Burnout

“We don’t burn out because we work. We burn out because we forget why we work. We lose sight of our goal.”

I want to share a short exchange I had with someone online last week. A software developer wrote that line above.

It sounds deep. It sounds like he’s getting in touch with his purpose, reminding himself not to expend resources on work that doesn’t inch him toward his goal. But it’s a little bit bullshit because this person was making it sound like the only reason anyone burns out is because they lose sight of their goals. Not true.

So I replied:

Burnout results from not having time off to recuperate from stressors. A study of munition works during WWI found that for optimal productivity, workers should put in no more than 49 hours per week. Not giving them a day off resulted in a 10 percent decrease in output.

I was referencing a study from Pencavel (2014) who found some great data crunched the numbers to show that productivity drops when people work too many hours or too many consecutive days. There are a lot of reasons we burnout, but crucially, working too many hours without sufficient time off will always do it.

I like that the data is from munitions workers because it helps us see that we can get great data about productivity and burnout from people who work for an hourly or piece-rate wage. Doing so eliminates a lot of other factors. For example, business owners have different motivating factors for their work than do hourly-paid factory workers. Some workers’ productivity is measured by the number of pieces they produce per hour, whereas other workers’ outputs are harder to quantify. Some work has a quality element, for example. Munitions workers don’t have a lot of complicating factors. It’s also easy to measure hours worked versus the number of weapons produced or moved down the line.

Certainly, having a goal and repeatedly making sure you’re working toward it by doing the right tasks is important. If you do unnecessary work, you will likely end up working more hours than you need to, and if you’re on a deadline, it may cause you to work longer and with less time off to recuperate. So it can indirectly lead to burnout, but it’s not even close to the cause of everyone’s burnout.

Any work, any stress, no matter if it’s getting you toward your goal or not, can cause burnout when you don’t give yourself time to recuperate from the stress that it causes.


Pencavel, J. (2014). The Productivity of Working Hours. The Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), Discussion Paper No. 8129 April 2014.

Image by Mattias Uhlig, CC.


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