Job burnout is one of the top 10 health problems in today’s workplace in the United States and is a persistent problem in other developed nations. Although definitions of burnout vary, generally it is a chronic and persistent feeling of emotional exhaustion related to stressful job conditions. The personal and organizational costs associated with burnout can be quite high. The factors related to the onset of burnout and to associated job and personal changes are discussed in this entry, as are ways to ameliorate burnout.
The Nature of Job Burnout
Use of the term burnout helps researchers describe a state of emotional exhaustion caused by overwork. Burnout can be seen as a negative outcome of excessive levels of perceived stress on the job. During the 1970s, researchers examined burnout in the context of early findings about its connection to decreased performance, particularly as identified in the helping professions (e.g., counseling). Recent research reports burnout in a broad array of jobs. Since the early 1990s, U.S. workers have reported a dramatic increase in their experiences of job stress, and the general public has embraced the term for those experiencing a high degree of stress or feeling frazzled, at their wit’s end, and so on. The common thread is the feeling of emotional exhaustion.
Burnout as a Construct
Christina Maslach has been one of the major proponents of a three-pronged theory of burnout, in which the three prongs are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished personal accomplishment. Emotional exhaustion still remains the most fundamental component of burnout. Individuals experiencing depersonalization start to see and treat people as objects, and individuals experiencing a diminished sense of personal accomplishment are unable to take pride in what they do. Current research suggests that burnout should once again be viewed as a single concept highlighted by emotional exhaustion. Recently, some attempts to study job burnout focused on exhaustion. Some theories expand the concept of exhaustion to include physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects. Other recent studies focused on both exhaustion and disengagement from personal relationships as job burnout symptoms, dropping only the diminished sense of personal accomplishment from the three-pronged approach.
Precursors of Job Burnout
Research has identified a variety of factors that contribute to the development and severity of job burnout. These problems fall into two major areas: work factors and personality factors.
Work Factors Related to Burnout
The most common work responsibility factor is work overload: having too much to do over an extended period of time. It depletes an individual’s physical, cognitive, and emotional resources and leads to exhaustion. A second major contributor to burnout is the loss of personal control in the job environment. The final set of problems relates to the roles established and maintained by individuals at work: role ambiguity, role conflict, and role overload. Role difficulties often link closely to both work overload and control problems. These role-related difficulties lead to increased stress levels. Clearly, these are areas where organizations have the ability to change and thereby reduce the potential for burnout. However, such changes are in potential conflict with organizational trends like downsizing and cost-saving adjustments.
Interpersonal relationships in the workplace are another major source of stress and, therefore, burnout. Most of these problems fall into the categories of lack of social support and conflict. Interactions with supervisors, peers, subordinates, and clients are all potential sources of stress and may range from lack of support to interpersonal conflict. Whereas in its lesser forms interpersonal peer issues are often mild and produce lower levels of stress, their more conflict-laden forms are a major source of stress to people.
Personality Factors Related to Burnout
In addition to the job environment, individuals have certain traits, conditions, and histories that may further heighten the effects of certain job factors leading to burnout. These traits are often referred to as “personality” factors and can range from work-family issues to transportation problems. Substantial evidence exists about the association of certain personality traits with increased incidence of job burnout. The most consistently found traits include Neuroticism, which predicts greater degrees of burnout, and Hardiness, which buffers the effects of burnout. Clearly, some people have predispositions to burnout, but job factors remain the most potent predictors of burnout.
The potential list of general conditions that affect workers’ tendency to experience burnout is long. Several factors seem particularly potent in today’s workplace. Work-nonwork balance is one of those factors. Individuals who are unable to balance their nonwork and work commitments are more likely to experience job burnout. Nonwork factors, such as financial difficulties, commuting time, multiple jobs, personal relationships, worries about war and terrorism, and even more “positive” stressors such as getting married or having children, are just a few of the issues that can elevate stress levels and contribute to burnout. The most likely outcome of these factors is a higher incidence of stress and burnout over time. However, job factors remain the major predictor of stress and burnout.
Consequences of Burnout in the Workplace
Job burnout creates problems with workers’ performance and attitudes about their jobs. These problems on the job fall into three broad categories: emotional, biological, and behavioral.
Consistent with the emotional exhaustion associated with burnout, other psychological changes occur. The most consistent job attitudes where declines occur include job satisfaction, job involvement, job commitment, organizational commitment, and increased job frustration. These negative attitudes often connect strongly to negative health outcomes (e.g., hypertension), behavioral changes (e.g., wanting to leave the organization), and, at the most extreme end, aggression and violence.
As with all negative stress-related circumstances, physical problems occur. These problems result in increased health care costs for the individual and possibly increased health care rates. Clearly, the organization can incur increased costs from these consequences of burnout.
Finally, stress and burnout may create additional behavioral changes in workers which directly affect organizational productivity. Burnout has been linked to increased accident rates, which result in decreased productivity and, in some cases, increased health care costs. Burnout decreases job performance, with individuals accomplishing less. In some cases, burnout can lead individuals to engage in negative activities that can cause decreased unit performance (e.g., being rude to customers). Because burnout is a health problem, companies may have difficulties firing a “sick” individual.
Coping With Burnout
While burnout is a negative outcome of stress, the question still remains: Why are some individuals more likely to experience burnout than others do when they experience the same sources of stress? Current research suggests that coping strategies and resources may reduce an individual’s risk of experiencing burnout. Different ideas abound regarding identification and categorization of these different coping strategies and resources. These varying categories and definitions of coping strategies find conflicting support for models, suggesting coping decreases the perception of stress and, thus, burnout. Coping plays a sizable role in explaining why some individuals experience burnout whereas others do not. However, it remains unclear just how coping works.
The previous focus on individual stress reduction techniques, such as coping, health promotion, and counseling, may place too much responsibility for stress reduction on the individual versus the organization. Needed are more programs directed at primary organizational causes of stress and burnout. Such programs could be directed at identifying factors affecting stress and burnout, such as selecting, training, and developing supervisors and managers; providing interpersonal communication training to all levels of employees; and reducing work and role overloads.
Future research could examine such factors as how resilient a person will be to stressors (the hardy personality) and matching people and environments (organizational fit). The key might be to design programs that are flexible and that recognize the important individual differences that influence job burnout.
Alternatively, along with psychology’s recent refocus on positive psychology, a new way to view this situation has emerged: focusing on individuals who are engaged in their jobs. Current debate centers on the construct definition of engagement between engagement as simply the opposite of burnout and engagement as an entirely separate and distinct construct. This view provides a way to apply the knowledge gained from the burnout literature without risking negative consequences that may be seen as stemming from employers admitting to possibly having a stressful work environment.
- Barling, Julian, E. Kevin Kelloway, and Michael R. Frone. 2005. Handbook of Work Stress. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Quick, James C., Jonathon D. Quick, Debra L. Nelson, and Joseph J. Hurrell Jr. 1997. Preventive Stress Management in Organizations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Shirom, Arie. 2003. “Job-Related Burnout.” Pp. 245-65 in Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology, edited by J. C. Quick and L. Tetrick. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Shirom, Arie. 2005. “Reflections on the Study of Burnout.” Work & Stress 19:263-70.
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