Emotional Burnout

Burnout is a set of negative human reactions to prolonged experienced stress on the job, especially reactions to exposure to stressors in the social environment at work. The burnout itself is also prolonged or chronic in the sense that it tends to last over a period rather than be an acute, short-term reaction. Furthermore, it might take different forms over time. Burnout is concerned with both the well-being of the individual and the success of the person in performing on the job, just as many other important topics in industrial and organizational psychology are.

As with most topics in work psychology, workers themselves certainly recognized the phenomenon of burnout before scholarly researchers did, but in the case of burnout, the term was even coined in the more popular press before it became a topic of serious study and practice. Researchers first theorized and studied burnout among people with human service careers— for example, psychotherapists and social workers. In fact, the early work on burnout defined its cause as working with and helping people in need. Subsequently, however, perhaps because the term burnout was so engaging, it became common to consider that people in any type of job can experience burnout.

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It is difficult to discuss research on burnout without considering its measurement. More than most other major topics in industrial/organizational psychology, the theoretical construct of burnout has almost become synonymous with one specific questionnaire measuring it, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). Paraphrasing from a comment on definitions of job satisfaction, one could almost say that burnout is defined as whatever the MBI measures. This measure of burnout, and/or its separate subscales, is so widely used that the comments in this entry often concern both the construct and this particular measure of it.

Facets of Burnout

The MBI’s original three subscales measure the three dimensions of burnout assumed to encompass the phenomenon: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and (reduced) personal accomplishment. Emotional exhaustion is often acknowledged as the core of burnout and is pretty much what the label implies: a feeling of tiredness, lack of energy, and generally negative and inactive emotion. Emotional exhaustion is frequently used by itself in research, sometimes with the label of burnout but other times being called emotional exhaustion or given even more general labels. Burnout is often considered to be distress or strain in the language of job stress literature— that is, it is seen as a harmful, aversive reaction resulting from environmental stressors. The centrality of the emotional exhaustion facet of burnout is probably the main reason for this view, because conceptually and empirically it resembles psychological strains in that literature. One difference is said to be that burnout, or just the emotional exhaustion facet, is job-related, whereas psychological strains such as depression are not necessarily job-related. This is an issue in which the measurement of burnout and the construct influence each other; the overwhelming majority of questionnaire items, for example, refer to something about workplace (job, work, clients, etc.). That is, most of the emotional exhaustion items tend to ask if people are emotionally exhausted at work or because of work. It seems possible that if the workplace were not referenced in the measure, the measure would appear and act even more as general depression-type items do.

Reduced personal accomplishment is a feeling that one does not or even cannot do good and important work on the job. On the MBI in particular, this dimension has been renamed in recent years as a sense of inefficacy, and some of the items measuring it do indeed resemble work-related self-efficacy items.

Depersonalization refers to the phenomenon in which human service workers go beyond the frequently recommended professional objectivity about their clients to the point where they think of clients more as objects than as humans, and they actually care about their clients less. This depersonalization might stem from the psychological burden of constantly working with people who have problems that are difficult to solve. Depersonalization could even be a way of attempting to cope with this type of job. Although depersonalization can technically occur only for people whose jobs require working with clients of some sort, the concept of burnout intuitively applied to other types of jobs, as well, and in recent years a new version of the MBI was developed that is intended for use with jobs in general (not necessarily human services jobs); it has a subscale labeled cynicism instead of the depersonalization subscale. Thus, for non-human services jobs, burnout might consist of emotional exhaustion, feelings of inefficacy, and cynicism. Work-related cynicism has not been studied widely in industrial/organizational psychology, and therefore this measurement and conceptual development cannot easily be set in a context of related industrial/organizational psychology research topics. Cynicisms basic meaning in English is a lack of belief in the virtue of other people. In the workplace, this might mean lack of faith or trust in the intentions and abilities of people to do good or appropriate things; therefore, its use to replace the people-oriented construct of depersonalization for non-human services jobs appears logical. The items in the MBI measure of cynicism do not directly address this concept, however; instead, most of them tend to ask about more general negative views of work such as psychological engagement with it. Because research on burnout relies so heavily on this questionnaire, the literature on employee cynicism will surely burgeon in the near future. Whether or not it actually will address cynicism is uncertain, however, given that the items may not address cynicism very clearly.

A great deal of research has been conducted on burnout, especially with the original MBI, and the three subscales (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of inefficacy) tend to be factorial independent of each other, showing they probably are indeed separable cosonalization tend to be strongly correlated with each other but not with feelings of inefficacy. There have been hypotheses that these three burnout reactions develop separately or at least at different times. One proposition is that emotional exhaustion develops first, depersonalization second, and inefficacy last. A second is that depersonalization develops first, inefficacy second, and emotional exhaustion last. A third is that emotional exhaustion and inefficacy develop first and at the same time, and then depersonalization develops last. Most research does not actually measure burnout as it develops, however, and the facets’ developmental order, if any, is uncertain. Some rationales for these orderings depict depersonalization as a kind of coping attempt, the idea being that depersonalizing clients is a way of reducing the emotional pain that can come from caring too much about people experiencing problems. One type of rationale is that depersonalization comes late in the process as a way to alleviate human service providers from the pain arising from the other two facets of burnout. Conservation of resources theory has become a somewhat popular explanation for burnout in recent years, and it takes the position that depersonalization serves this purpose; it conserves the energy and effectiveness of the person. Alternatively, however, depersonalization might come earlier in the process but makes people feel they are no longer faithfully doing the good and important work they had set out to do early in their careers, leading to feelings of inefficacy or even emotional exhaustion.

Potential Causes and Consequences of Burnout

There are many potential causes and consequences of burnout. Most of the research has used cross-sectional and nonexperimental methods, however, and as a result, there is little strong evidence about these. Potential causes prominently include occupational stressors, such as role overload, role ambiguity, and role conflict. In occupational stress theory, these stressors are derived from role theory and represent expectations or demands that the people in a role place on the focal person. Thus, these stressors have an interpersonal component. Other stressors, such as pressure for performance and a variety of stressful events, might also lead to greater burnout. Unmet expectations are also related to burnout, and this is consistent with the idea that burnout develops over time in a job. The perception of an inequitable work environment might also lead to burnout, although this relationship might not be linear or simple. Some environmental characteristics also might lead to lower burnout, including innovative environments, jobs using the person’s valued skills, participation in decision making, and job autonomy. The empirical evidence for these and for the other relationships reported here tend to be more consistent for emotional exhaustion and depersonalization than for inefficacy, however.

In addition to the work environment, some personal characteristics or individual differences also appear to predict burnout. These include both demographic and dispositional variables. The empirical relationships found between environmental predictors and burnout are much stronger and more consistent than relationships between personal factors and burnout, but it should be remembered that the measures of the environmental factors are nearly always the person’s perceptions of the environment rather than objective measures. To the extent that age is related to burnout, the relationship appears to be negative, with younger people reporting more burnout than older ones. It could be predicted that older people would be more burned out owing to their longer experience with the occupation, but the negative relationship is usually interpreted as meaning that older people were different in some way—so that they survived instead of burning out and leaving their jobs. That is, those who burned out when they were younger left the job and are no longer there to be detected by burnout studies when they are older. The relationship between other demographic variables and burnout is even less clear, but women and single people might have slightly higher levels of burnout. Regarding personality or dispositions, evidence for causation is not strong, but people who have generally “good” or healthy characteristics tend to report less burnout. These characteristics include internal locus of control, low neuroticism, high self-esteem, hardiness, and type B behavior pattern.

Although burnout can be considered an outcome of stress and therefore important in its own right, another reason to be concerned about it is that it might lead to other important outcomes. Outcomes from burnout would be expected to include distress or strains (or other strains, if burnout itself is a strain), low organizational commitment and job satisfaction, few organizational citizenship behaviors, low job performance and low career success, high absenteeism, and high turnover. Obviously, some of these outcomes would be important to an employer. Less research has been done in this area, and therefore there is less certainty about the relationships with potential outcomes. One would expect the different facets of burnout to be related differentially to each outcome. For example, emotional exhaustion should be related especially to other strains or ill psychological or even physical health, inefficacy should be related to lower job performance and career success, and depersonalization might be more closely related to fewer helping behaviors that are part of organizational citizenship toward individuals. There is some modest evidence for this, but more striking is the overall finding that emotional exhaustion and depersonalization tend to be related to other variables in general more strongly than inefficacy is.

Remaining Issues for Present and Future

Coming back to the issue of measurement, it is not wholly certain whether there might be more or different facets (or even fewer) of burnout than the three in the MBI. Very quickly in the early research on burnout, this measure became the standard, perhaps because it was relatively successful in tapping an intuitively important problem, was easy to use, and gave good results to researchers. It has been a very serviceable instrument for researchers and practitioners alike. We can make the definition of burnout isomorphic with this measure, and burnout will, by definition, have these three facets. The changing of one facet from depersonalization to cynicism (for non-human services jobs) indicates that the three may not be set in stone, and there have been a few limited research attempts to add other facets, as well. This might be an issue for future theoretical and empirical work.

There has been a great deal of interest in burnout, especially in the helping professions, and this has resulted in many efforts to reduce it, often in the form of workshops and self-help books. There have been far more efforts toward application than toward evaluating the effectiveness of the applications, however. Most interventions focus on changing the person in some way, rather than changing the presumed cause (the environment), and many are relatively short in duration. The very short (e.g., one half or even one whole day) workshops might not be very effective, but there is more promise when the interventions are long term and include periodic booster or follow-up sessions. Very gradually, more and better empirical evaluations are occurring, and we will eventually learn more about the effectiveness of interventions aimed at reducing burnout.


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