Addressing Burnout: Surplus Powerlessness In the Workplace


Stress usually occurs as a byproduct of workplace powerlessness because feelings of powerlessness at work prevent us from being the kind of human beings we need to be.

Stress is detrimental to the mental and physical state of health care workers, so why is management not doing more to change the workplace to make it less stressful? It is undeniable that a healthier workforce can result in more productivity. Unfortunately, many health care professionals seem to blame themselves for their stress, which, in turns, benefits management.

In his book, Surplus Powerlessness: The Psychodynamics of Everyday Life and the Psychology of Individual and Social Transformation, Dr. Michael Lerner explains: “Even though workers may have higher rates of absenteeism and lower levels of productivity, it may still be more efficient for management to have workers feel bad about themselves…that worker may then feel powerless to change the stressful work conditions and powerless to change the way things are organized in the larger society—may actually be valuable resultant from the standpoint of management efficiency.”1

Stress usually occurs as a byproduct of workplace powerlessness because feelings of powerlessness at work prevent us from being the kind of human beings we need to be. It prevents us from actualizing our human potential.

Depressed woman sits on the edge of dark hole and sees no prospects. Sad girl is powerless and apathy. Female person without motivation. Mental health

Image credit: Mary Long |

Michael Lerner describes the concept of surplus powerlessness, which he refers as economic, political, and social arrangements meant to prevent human actualization from occurring. He states, “Surplus powerlessness refers to the fact that human beings contribute to this powerlessness to the extent that their own emotional, intellectual, and spiritual makeup prevents them from actualizing possibilities that do exist within the content of real powerlessness in ways that might potentially yield more possibilities for them to actualize their Human Essence.”1

Utter powerlessness in itself is a source of trauma. In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Dr. Bruce Perry, an expert in child trauma, explains “...trauma at its core is an experience of utter powerlessness and loss of control.”2 Because of the feeling of powerlessness, a person fails to feel safe within their own body and grows up believing something is off but is unable to put a finger on what causes this insecurity, therefore assuming they are the problem.

The human brain is not designed for uncertainty; it’s designed for survival. In times of extreme distress and uncertainty, the neocortex, where higher level thinking takes place, is overtaken by the parts of the brain that govern emotion and survival—the amygdala, also known as the body’s alarm system. We become more self-centered and less collaborative, giving, and empathetic. It’s a self-defense mechanism that can negatively impact our work and our relationships.

When our stress response is activated or triggered by an outside danger, we focus on 3 things, which are perceived to be of highest importance to the body: the body (how can I take care of my body?), the environment (where can I go to feel safe?), and time (how long will it take for me to overcome this threat?).

When we are under stress, we live in survival mode, which is the very reason why we humans are so dominated by the 3 big things listed above. As a result, we start to perceive our survival within the confines of the danger that we are surrounded by. We no longer feel spiritual, conscious and aware of our surrounding. We grow to be more materialistic, consumed by the thoughts of things in the external environment. We become consumed by the things we own, people we know, places we have to go, and problems we have to overcome.

When we are in survival mode, we forget who we really are. We become disconnected from the field of reality. The more we are impacted by the rush of stress hormones, the more the chemical rush and survival become our reality. We unconsciously become addicted to the rush of stress hormones caused by our problems at work. We keep these situations in our lives to feed into our addictive narrative of being in danger. Simply put, we hold tight to our troubles because they help reinforce who we are. When we are in survival mode, we are solely focused on ourselves rather than the team or environment around us.

This is important to understand because when employees are under immense work-related stress, the self is the focus.Employees are not able to think collaboratively or innovatively. The innovative as well cognitive part of the brain, the neocortex, is simply hijacked by the brain’s survival part, the amygdala.

Demand/Control Model

In 1970, US sociologist Robert Karasekt presented the Demand/Control Model, which was intended to be an assessment of how psychologically safe employees must feel in order to voice their concerns, as well as the autonomy and freedom they might have in deciding their work demand. This model became one of the best-known models with regard to workload and work-related stress. The model looks at the two factors: job demand and the level of control/authority given to staff.3

Karasek presented his model in a diagram, in which the horizontal x-axis shows the job demands, which can by high or low. The vertical y-axis shows the job decision latitude, which can also be high or low. From this Demand/Control Model, you then get 4 potential situations:3

  • Low-strain jobs: This scenario combines demand-free jobs with a high level of control latitude for the employee. This section includes the most routine jobs.
  • High-strain jobs: This refers to very demanding and/or complex jobs with very little control latitude. The employees have no control and have to do as they are told. The lack of decision latitude can also be the result of deadlines, and the risk of stress is very high for these types of jobs.
  • Passive jobs: These jobs are simple jobs with little to no decision latitude. This includes a lot of repetitive and production jobs. The risk of stress for these types of jobs is lowest.
  • Active jobs: These jobs are highly demanding jobs that allow the employee to decide when they do their work. As a result of the high level of decision latitude, the employee does not experience their job as stressful, despite it being very psychologically demanding.

How to Apply the Demand/Control Model

The Demand/Control Model focuses on the balance between the desires of employees and their autonomy. It indicates that those who have a high degree of work pressures and a low degree of control have an increased risk of stress, and more negative health outcomes.3

The model is simple and can be used to identify and analyze work-related stress in employees. It also offers starting points for interventions. If an employee finds his workload demanding, it would be wise of the manager to explore the degree of the employee’s control latitude. If the same employee finds it difficult that he has little or no influence on the organization of his work, then the job stress model shows that he is in a stressful job but needs a more active job.

This model can be useful, particularly with the flexibility of virtual work. When appropriate, based on this model, it makes sense to give team members more freedom to make their own decisions. For example, once job duties and responsibilities are assigned, it is critical to take a step back and let the team decide how they should go about handling the tasks. Team members who have the latitude to choose when and where they can work often feel that they have more autonomy over their workload.


  1. Lerner M. Surplus Powerlessness: The Psychodynamics of Everyday Life and the Psychology of Individual and Social Transformation. 1998; Humanities Press.
  2. Perry BD. The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog. 2017; Basic Books.
  3. Gameiro M, Chambel MJ, Carvalho VS. A person-centered approach to the job demands­–control model: A multifunctioning test of addictive and buffer hypotheses to explain burnout. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(23):8871. doi:10.3390/ijerph17238871
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