Well-Being//

The Surprising Connection Between Goal-Setting and Burnout

New research offers a major tip for setting goals that help us feel less stressed and more inspired.

RunPhoto/ Getty Images
RunPhoto/ Getty Images

Working toward a collective goal can inspire us to do our best work, but it can also become discouraging if you don’t feel a sense of personal investment in the broader mission. Now a new study suggests that if your personal goals don’t align with your company’s, it can lead to mounting stress and eventual burnout. 

“Research has shown that setting goals as an organization is a positive thing for employee performance, but that research is primarily based on your cognitive performance,” Michael Baer, Ph.D., one of the study’s co-authors, and an assistant professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, tells Thrive. “We also experience our work on an emotional level, and that’s where other factors of our performance can suffer.”

Baer’s team found that when we feel that goals are imposed on us, we lose the drive to reach those goals, and we hit a level of emotional exhaustion that causes us to lose motivation, and ultimately experience burnout. While both types of goals can be positive, Baer says, “we found that self-set goals are more often associated with increased enthusiasm, while organization-set goals are associated with increased anxiety and burnout.”

In order to avoid reaching that level of exhaustion, we may need to reframe and realign how we set our goals — and how we prioritize our work and that of our employees. Here are a few ways to do just that.

Take a more proactive role 

It’s not always easy to set big-picture goals as employees — but Baer’s team found that when you go out of your way to take a proactive role and think like an owner, you’re more likely to feel invested in your organization’s direction, and see how your work fits into it. If you feel unmotivated by the current goals you’re working toward, ask your supervisor if you can play a bigger role, Baer suggests. “When you have a say in what you’re moving toward, you feel more compelled to be productive and focused,” he explains, “And more often that not, the company will appreciate you stepping up.” 

If you’re a manager, be stress-aware

If you’re in a leadership position, it’s important that you let your employees know how their work positively impacts the larger goals of the company, and that you check in with employees periodically to make sure they have the resources to achieve the goals you expect of them, Baer says. “If you’re setting high goals, be aware that employees may be coping by giving up other things,” he notes. “Employees don’t have unending reserves of energy to draw upon, and that’s important to keep in mind if you’re increasing demands.” Baer suggests checking asking your co-workers if they have the bandwidth to take on a new task before assigning it to them, and helping them adjust their priorities when an important new project comes up, so they know where their time and skills are needed most.

If you’re experiencing signs of burnout, ask for help

You’ll be more likely to reach your goals when you’re not fighting burnout to get there — and Baer recommends asking for help before you’re completely stressed out. “Employees are afraid to ask for help in fear that it will make them look weak or incapable,” he says, but it’s your manager’s job to help you if you’re feeling unmotivated or overwhelmed. It’s important to check in with your boss regularly, and not to wait until you’re on the brink of burnout to ask for a change to be made. “We experience our goals on an emotional level — and ignoring those emotions is not the answer,” Baer adds. “It’s never a problem to ask for help.”

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