Many individuals feel “burned out” from their jobs. Indeed, job burnout can be a substantial obstacle to employee and organizational well-being. Christina Maslach, a pioneer in the study of the burnout process, has defined job burnout as a prolonged response to chronic (that is, long-lasting) stressors in the workplace. Maslach has also developed several versions of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the most popular instrument used to measure employee burnout.
It is generally believed that there are three aspects or dimensions of job burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and cynicism, and a lack of personal accomplishment. That is, employees who are burned out from their jobs are emotionally exhausted, feel cynical about their work and detached from others in the workplace, and feel ineffective at work. Although burnout was initially studied among employees in the human services and health care fields, who have emotionally intense contact with clients or patients, it is now recognized that burnout can be experienced by employees in a wide range of occupations and industries.
Factors That Produce Burnout
Although several different theories have been proposed to explain why employees experience burnout, one common theme is the belief that burnout is caused by a lack of fit between the job situation and the person. For example, a variety of work stressors, such as an ambiguous work environment, a heavy workload, extensive work pressure, and stressful events at work, are associated with emotional exhaustion and, to a lesser extent, depersonalization. Presumably, these stressors produce burnout because they represent obstacles to achieving a fit between the employee and the job. Factors such as a lack of resources at work, the absence of social support, and a diminished feeling of group cohesion and community can also produce emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, although they don’t seem to have quite as strong an effect on burnout as do the work stressors related to lack of fit.
Maslach and her colleagues have recently identified six areas of work life that can produce job burnout: excessive workload, lack of control, insufficient rewards, lack of community, feelings of unfairness, and conflict in values between the individual and the organization. Problems in each of these six areas make it difficult for an employee to achieve congruence or fit between his or her goals or values and the work environment.
Although the job situation has a powerful effect on employee burnout, the individual’s personality may also play a role in job burnout. It is possible that some personality characteristics (such as neuroticism and an external locus of control) make employees more susceptible to stress and burnout, whereas others (such as high self-esteem, hardiness, openness to new experiences, and agreeableness) protect employees from burnout. Nevertheless, Maslach and other scholars believe that the job situation has a stronger and more consistent effect on job burnout than do personality characteristics.
Consequences of Burnout
Job burnout has been linked to such work-related outcomes as diminished performance on the job, a lack of commitment to the organization, a low level of job satisfaction, and a desire to quit the job. Beyond these consequences, burned-out employees can experience negative emotions, apathy, and physical health problems. Job burnout can also affect an employee’s family life. For example, research has shown that burned-out police officers tend to be moody and withdrawn at home and dissatisfied with their marriages. Moreover, an employee’s job burnout can “cross over” to his or her spouse, producing a high level of burnout in the spouse. Clearly, burnout has a wide range of negative consequences to the employee and, ultimately, the organization.
Actions to Reduce the Incidence of Burnout
Because both job characteristics and personal characteristics can produce burnout, interventions can focus on either changing the organization or changing the employee, although these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Interventions that target the organization for change attempt to reduce the organizational stressors that produce burnout. Interventions that target the employee try to enhance the individual’s ability to recognize and cope effectively with the stressors that are producing the burnout.
A number of scholars have observed that the research conducted to evaluate burnout reduction interventions is quite limited. Nevertheless, some studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of such interventions, and Maslach and her colleagues have recently developed a comprehensive, research-based program to prevent burnout in organizations. Research should continue to find ways to help organizations become less stressful and more supportive of their employees so that both parties—organizations and employees—can thrive and function effectively.
- Halbesleben, J. R. B. and Buckley, M. R. 2004. “Burnout in Organizational Life.” Journal of Management 30:859-879.
- Lee, R. T. and Ashforth, B. W. 1996. “A Meta-analytic Examination of the Correlates of the Three Dimensions of Job Burnout.” Journal of Applied Psychology 81:123-133.
- Maslach, C. 2003. “Job Burnout: New Directions in Research and Intervention.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12:189-192.
- Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B. and Leiter, M. P. 2001. “Job Burnout.” Annual Review of Psychology 52:397-422.