Fear Can Lead to Increased Proactivity and Burnout

Topic(s): burnout, stress, wellness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2022)
Article: What Makes You Proactive Can Burn You Out: The Downside of Proactive Skill- Building Motivated by Financial Precarity and Fear
Authors: R.D. Lebel, X. Yang, S.K. Parker, D. Kamran-Morley
Reviewed by: Katherine Facteau

Proactive behavior is often viewed positively in the workplace. After all, proactive employees may experience heightened job performance and overall workplace success. However, new research (Lebel et al., 2022) reveals an intriguing twist: proactivity can sometimes stem from fear, resulting in unexpected negative consequences, such as burnout.


Through a multi-wave study involving 1,315 non-faculty university employees, the researchers discovered that the COVID-19 pandemic left many people with a sense of financial precarity, or the feeling that one doesn’t have adequate financial resources. Consequently, this financial precarity amplified feelings of fear among employees, leading them to engage in proactive skill-building as a means of safeguarding themselves against this perceived threat.

However, this proactive behavior also had negative outcomes for employees. The researchers found that employees experienced burnout resulting from feeling psychologically depleted. Interestingly, this relationship was especially strong for people with high impression management motives, which is the need to uphold a certain public image. These people felt especially exhausted from wanting to be recognized for their proactive efforts.


What can organizations do to navigate these challenges? The researchers offer valuable insights for managers and leaders. First, its crucial for them to be aware of how fear-inducing situations can contribute to employee burnout. Regular check-ins and providing support during difficult times can go a long way in alleviating the potential negative effects of fear-inducing situations.

Additionally, considering that employees higher in impression management experienced greater burnout, it might also be helpful to publicly recognize employees who demonstrate a proactive approach to work; this may help them feel better appreciated. Finally, managers and workers should be aware that while proactivity is generally beneficial, it can have unanticipated consequences. Thus, employees would be wise not to over-stretch themselves.


Lebel, R. D., Yang, X., Parker, S. K., & Kamran-Morley, D. (2023). What makes you proactive can burn you out: The downside of proactive skill building motivated by financial precarity and fear. Journal of Applied Psychology, 108(7), 1207–1222.

Image credit: istockphoto/AaronAmat