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Key Words work stress, organizational behavior, job engagement, stress management, job-person fit
Abstract Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. The past 25 years of research has established the complexity of the construct, and places the individual stress experience within a larger organizational context of people's relation to their work. Recently, the work on burnout has expanded internationally and has led to new conceptual models. The focus on engagement, the positive antithesis of burnout, promises to yield new perspectives on interventions to alleviate burnout. The social focus of burnout, the solid research basis concerning the syndrome, and its specific ties to the work domain make a distinct and valuable contribution to people's health and well-being.
The relationship that people have with their work, and the difficulties that can arise when that relationship goes awry, have been long recognized as a significant phenomenon of the modern age. The use of the term burnout for this phenomenon began to appear with some regularity in the 1970s in the United States, especially among people working in the human services. This popular usage was presaged by Greene's 1961 novel, A Burn-Out Case, in which a spiritually tormented and disillusioned architect quits his job and withdraws into the African jungle. Even earlier writing, both fictional and nonfictional, described similar phenomena, including extreme fatigue and the loss of idealism and passion for one's job. What is noteworthy is that the importance of burnout as a social problem was identified by both practitioners and social commentators long before it became a focus of systematic study by researchers.
The evocative power of the burnout term to capture the realities of people's experiences in the workplace is what has made it both important and controversial in the research field. As the "language of the people," burnout was more grounded in the complexities of people's relationship to work and gave new attention to some aspects of it. However, burnout was also derided at first as nonscholarly "pop psychology." Unlike other research on the workplace, which used a top-down approach derived from a scholarly theory, burnout research initially utilized a bottom-up or "grass-roots" approach derived from people's workplace experiences. At first, the popular, nonacademic origins of burnout were more of a liability than an advantage. However, given the subsequent development of theoretical models and numerous empirical studies, the issue of research scholarship has now been laid to rest.
What has emerged from all of tiffs research is a conceptualization of job burnout as a psychological syndrome in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. The exhaustion component represents the basic individual stress dimension of burnout. It refers to feelings of being overextended and depleted of one's emotional and physical resources. The cynicism (or depersonalization) component represents the interpersonal context dimension of burnout. It refers to a negative, callous, or excessively detached response to various aspects of the job. The component of reduced efficacy or accomplishment represents the self-evaluation dimension of burnout. It refers to feelings of incompetence and a lack of achievement and productivity at work.
The goal of this chapter is to provide a critical analysis of what has been learned from the past 25 years of work on job burnout. We frame each of the sections in terms of key research questions that have been raised and then summarize the theoretical and empirical responses to them. A comprehensive citation of the research literature is available elsewhere (Cordes & Dougherty 1993, Schaufeli & Enzmann 1998); our focus here is on what we see as the major issues in the field.
HISTORY OF BURNOUT RESEARCH
These major issues and themes have been shaped in important ways by the history of the research on burnout. This research has gone through distinct phases of development.
The Pioneering Phase
In the first phase, the work was exploratory and had the goal of articulating the phenomenon of burnout. The initial articles appeared in the mid-1970s in the United States and their primary contribution was to describe the basic phenomenon, give it a name, and show that it was not an uncommon response. This early writing was based on the experience of people working in human services and health care--occupations in which the goal is to provide aid and service to people in need, and which can therefore be characterized by emotional and interpersonal stressors. The initial articles were written by Freudenberger (1975), a psychiatrist working in an alternative health care agency, and by Maslach (1976), a social psychologist who was studying emotions in the workplace. Freudenberger provided direct accounts of the process by which he and others experienced emotional depletion and a loss of motivation and commitment, and he labeled it with a term being used colloquially to refer to the effects of chronic drug abuse: burnout. Maslach interviewed a wide range of human services workers about the emotional stress of their jobs and discovered that the coping strategies had important implications for people's professional identity and job behavior.
Thus, burnout research had its roots in care-giving and service occupations, in which the core of the job was the relationship between provider and recipient. This interpersonal context of the job meant that, from the beginning, burnout was studied not so much as an individual stress response, but in terms of an individual's relational transactions in the workplace. Moreover, this interpersonal context focused attention on the individual's emotions, and on the motives and values underlying his or her work with recipients.
The clinical and social psychological perspectives of the initial articles influenced the nature of the first phase of burnout research. On the clinical side, the focus was on symptoms of burnout and on issues of mental health. On the social side, the focus was on the relationship between provider and recipient and on the situational context of service occupations. Most of this initial research was descriptive and qualitative in nature, utilizing such techniques as interviews, case studies, and on-site observations.
Several themes emerged from these early interviews in the human services, suggesting that the burnout phenomenon had some identifiable regularities. First, it was clear that the provision of service or care can be a very demanding and involving occupation and that emotional exhaustion is not an uncommon response to such job overload. The second component of depersonalization (cynicism) also emerged from these interviews, as people described how they tried to cope with the emotional stresses of their work. Moderating one's compassion for clients by emotional distance from them ("detached concern") was viewed as a way of protecting oneself from intense emotional arousal that could interfere with functioning effectively on the job. However, an imbalance of excessive detachment and little concern seemed to lead staff to respond to clients in negative, callous, and dehumanized ways.
A better feel for the situational context of the provider-recipient relationship came from field observations, in addition to the interviews. It was possible to see first-hand some of the job factors that had been described in earlier interviews, such as the high number of clients (caseload), prevalence of negative client feedback, and scarcity of resources. It was also possible to observe other, unreported aspects of the interaction between provider and client, such as nonverbal "distancing" behaviors.
Interwoven throughout this early work was a central focus on relationships--usually between provider and recipient, but also between provider and coworkers or family members. These relationships were the source of both emotional strains and rewards and sometimes they functioned as a resource for coping with stress. The centrality of these interactions for the experiences that were being described made it clear that a contextual analysis of the overall phenomenon would be the most appropriate way to gain insight into it.
In addition, this first phase was characterized by a strong applied orientation, which reflected the particular set of social, economic, historical, and cultural factors of the 1970s. These factors influenced the professionalization of the human services in the United States and had made it more difficult for people to find fulfillment and satisfaction in these careers (see Cherniss 1980, Farber 1983). The strong concern in these occupations about the problem of burnout led to calls for immediate solutions, despite the lack of much solid knowledge of burnout's causes and correlates. Burnout workshops became a primary mode of intervention, and were also used as sources of data by some researchers (e.g. Pines et al 1981).
The Empirical Phase
In the 1980s the work on burnout shifted to more systematic empirical research. This work was more quantitative in nature, utilizing questionnaire and survey methodology and studying larger subject populations. A particular focus of this research was the assessment of burnout, and several different measures were developed. The scale that has had the strongest psychometric properties and continues to be used most widely by researchers is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) developed by Maslach & Jackson (1981). The MBI was originally designed for use in human service occupations. However, in response to the interest in burnout by teachers, a second version of the MBI was soon developed for use by educational occupations. With the growing body of empirical research, alternative proposals began to be generated about the developmental course of burnout over time.
The shift to greater empiricism was accompanied by theoretical and methodological contributions from the field of industrial-organizational psychology. Burnout was viewed as a form of job stress, with links to such concepts as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover. The industrial-organizational approach, when combined with the prior work based in clinical and social psychology, generated a richer diversity of perspectives on burnout and strengthened the scholarly base via the use of standardized tools and research designs.
In the 1990s this empirical phase continued, but with several new directions. First, the concept of burnout was extended to occupations beyond the human services and education (e.g. clerical, computer technology, military, managers). Second, burnout research was enhanced by more sophisticated methodology and statistical tools. The complex relationships among organizational factors and the three components of burnout led to the use of structural models in much burnout research. This approach permits researchers to examine the contribution of many potential influences and consequences simultaneously, separating unique contributors to the development of burnout …