Deconstructing the Attributes of Burnout

Kent Dahlgren
5 min readMay 4, 2022


Years ago I met a woman who had written a doctoral thesis on the phenomena of burnout within the domain of social work.

I think about her paper all of the time, because it contains significant and pertinent insights into why people get so burnt, angry, and sometimes depressed.

As I recall she suggested three dimensions of what might be visualized as a “prism” someone could use to discern how people come to be demoralized.

They are:

  • (V) able to see/visualize the issue
  • (R) responsible
  • (E) the ability to effect change
The “burnout prism,” as illustrated on a handy piece of broken drywall

In an ideal state, these three dimensions are balanced, but when they become imbalanced there’s the opportunity for people’s ongoing endeavors to begin manifesting as frustration, anger, depression, and burnout.

This visualization is useful because (for me) it brings to mind the ancient art of tuning an engine’s carburetor.

Nowadays automobiles use a computer to automatically optimize the mixture of air and fuel, (“emissions control”), but in the old days this was done mechanically through the use of a carburetor, and one had to take into account relative elevation, humidity, the fuel’s octane, the engine’s throughput, and many other attributes to ideally tune the engine for optimal performance and efficiency.

A “tune up.”

For example, you might tune the carburetor for optimal performance at sea level (where air is more dense), and yet find that the car runs like shit when you drive to the mountains.

This is because air becomes thinner as you gain elevation, which means that the car is running “too rich” (not enough air), resulting in a black stream of unburnt fuel coming from the tailpipe (increased hydrocarbons).

Returning to the attributes of burnout within a work environment, (or within a person’s private life), one can likewise evaluate the environmental conditions through the “prism” suggested above, designed to reveal why a person would become demoralized.

Here’s great and common example:

A person who works within a company might have a job that’s intended to make them feel (R) responsible for the stewardship of customers’ private information.

Due to this person‘s professional role, they may be afforded (V) visibility into how the company is failing to take proper precautions, and yet due to inept management, they may feel that they are not able to sufficiently (E) effect positive change.

If one were to draw this on a piece of paper, the (E) dimension becomes elongated, throwing the entire system out of balance (they are unable to effect positive change, even though they feel responsible).

The person in this position is therefore invited to consider certain alternative contingencies outside the existing institution, relative to how much they feel themselves loyal to their (R) responsibility.

I’ve just described to you the dynamics which encourage the phenomenon of whistleblowing from within an institution. This is also a fertile mix for encouraging people into rationalizing internal fraud.

I’ve found this prism effective at helping quickly triage a situation so I might shortlist certain remediation strategies and tactics.

For instance, one thing that’s pretty common within large companies that have pursued a de facto policy of a insufficiently protecting their customers’ private information is to obfuscate the problem entirely.

They do this by moving private data from one silo to the next, thereby removing some measure of (V) visibility on the part of the (R) responsible parties.

In specific terms, there are various regulatory compliance standards that dictate how private information is protected, but if a company moves data from one silo to the next, they sometimes figure out ways to play something like a shell game designed to remove (V) visibility, thereby compartmentalizing assessed risk.

More pertinent to current events, this framework is effective for assessing burnout by evaluating why people are so angry and frustrated with the failure of our political institution.

Let’s repeat the framework / the “prism:”

  • (V) able to see/visualize the issue
  • (R) responsible
  • (E) the ability to effect change

In this scenario, those who are (R) responsible for (E) effecting change (political leadership) have demonstrated themselves to be completely insufficient for the task.

And if you want to understand what inspires a revolution, it’s this.

Within our existing system, those who are (R) responsible choose to prioritize the interests of the largest corporations and the most wealthy, therefore ensuring their own political survival is emphasized over the needs and wishes of the population.

When the existing solution is revealed as being insufficient for (E) effecting change, individual people step into the role of (R) responsibility and take matters into their own hands, thus delivering a de facto vote of no confidence.

Part of what exacerbates this issue is how national politics have taken on the quality of an ongoing reality TV show (V for visibility), where our own lives are at stake (thus triggering (R) for responsibility), with decisions made by an increasingly out-of-touch caste of ultra-privileged (vote of no confidence for the caste unable to (E) effect change).

I dislike chaos. I really do.

It’s my recommendation that people redirect their efforts towards that which has more concrete influence in their daily lives, which is a great way of tuning the “burnout prism” almost immediately.

“Think global; act local.”

Unfortunately, most people aren’t ready to do that right now, probably because they enjoy the reality TV show.

Right now, most people are in a state of denial, despite overwhelming evidence that the existing system will not be fixed, nor will it get back on track.

They believe their vote, their donations, and their social media contributions are making a difference, but they are not.

It’s all good. 🤷‍♂️

All of this contributes towards “unburnt fuel,” which leads to an exacerbation of conditions that will only (and inevitably) create the untenable circumstances necessary for systemic change, which will not come from the top, but from the bottom.

Interesting aside: when a car is starved of air, and has too much fuel, it tends to backfire, which is what happens when unburnt fuel explodes in the tailpipe.


Change in our current system is not possible from the top; those at the top are most richly-rewarded for status quo, thus increasing “unburnt fuel” as it exits the exhaust system.

Change is only possible from the bottom, and it would be my recommendation that you invest in that which keeps you and your loved ones safe and well fed so you’re prepared when the “backfire” occurs.

But you are free to pick your adventure; by all means, keep giving your money to people who have a net worth thousands of times your own, and loyal only to large corporations.



Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”