In today’s highly technological world in which everything seems to move just a little too fast it’s not surprising that many people experience what is termed as ‘job burnout’. Our jobs have become such an all encompassing part of our lives. We spend more time on the workplace than anywhere else. These jobs are our lifeline. We rely on them for our financial and emotional security. Without them we flounder and life is definitely more stressful.
Yet, work can be and often is stressful too. As a result many people feel unable to cope with the circumstances of their jobs. “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” (Maslach, Shaufeli, & Leiter, 2001, p. 397).
Stress Theory and Job Burnout
One of the most prevalent theories of job burnout is that people for many reasons become completely ‘stressed out’ (in the popular vernacular). Yet, this popular phrase carries with it a very serious set of complicated reasons why people begin to have difficulty coping with their job. For some people it is the complexity of their jobs. For example, a surgeon who works long hours and has peoples’ lives in his/her hands every day can be enormously stressful. Another prime example would be a social worker who deals with the hard core issues of society such as child abuse, family violence and the general breakdown in peoples’ lives. For those of us looking from the outside in, it is not difficult to understand why people who work in these demanding professions experience burnout. However, job burnout is not limited to these demanding professions. This is why the stress theory becomes so valuable.
“Stress refers to psychological, physical and behavioural responses to work-related demands over a discrete or short-term period” (Skinner & Roche, 2005, p. 5). These authors state that sometimes people equate stress with burnout, but it is important to understand they are two different experiences. Stress can lead to burnout, but it is not burnout. “Burnout is a long-term process characterised by “chronic malfunctioning” and negative and cynical attitudes towards clients and work in general” (Skinner & Roche, 2005, p. 5). The fact is that many people and perhaps all people experience some form of stress in their job. There are, as noted above, some jobs where stress is endemic to the nature of the position. Then, there are jobs where stress accumulates over times and thus leads to the possibility of burnout.
The presence of stress in our lives is an obvious reality. However, when stress begins to accumulate and exists for a prolonged period of time, there is the possibility that people will develop job burnout. Some of the factors that can lead to the accumulation of stress are the presence of an ineffective manager, organizational dysfunction, poor inter-office communications, overload of work, the commitment of the company or organization to its employees and the presence or absence of job satisfaction. People who work in environments where any one of these factors are present will be at risk for exposure to a stressful environment. Employees who experience a combination of these factors will be at an even higher risk for job burnout.
One of the key factors in the accumulation of stress is that of the level of commitment between employee and employer. Individuals who do not feel a commitment to their organization, perhaps even find a clash of values, will find themselves at odds with their employer. This situation can lead to an accumulation of stress as employer and employee will eventually develop a combative relationship.
Another factor in the accumulation of stress on the job is the imbalance between demands on the job and resources available to do the job. “High levels of demand are primarily responsible for stress and burnout. Specifically, high demands produce emotional exhaustion which leads to a defensive coping strategy in which individuals attempt to distance themselves from the emotional stressors associated with a demanding workload” (Skinner & Roche, 2005, p. 12). The result of this situation is that an employee begins to emotionally distance themselves from their job. The person feels a low level or even a total lack of commitment to the work. The availability of resources is extremely important because resources are not just objects such as technology but also emotional resources such as personal support, rewards for a job well done, performance incentives and regular, appropriate performance feedback or review.
In a Canadian study of oncology professionals, the presence of stressors on the job did not relate to the nature of the job itself. Rather, the presence of stress was very similar to the description offered by Skinner and Roche. The employees at Cancer Care Ontario (a provincial clinic for treating people with cancer) responded to feeling highly stressed when the workload was out of balance with the resources available to do their job. Some of the factors in the development of stress were insufficient staff to respond to patient needs, conflicting demands on staff time, overly demanding workload, and the disruption of home life due to an overly demanding job. In the case of Canadian oncology workers many are finding the job so stressful that burnout is not the only result. Some workers want out of the care system. “Our findings support the concern that medical oncology personnel in Ontario are experiencing burnout and high levels of stress and that large numbers of staff are considering leaving or decreasing their work hours. Burnout is understood to be a pattern” (Grunfeld et al, 2000, p. 168).
The Skinner and Roche study (2005) points to another important factor in the accumulation of stress – the lack of the ability to balance one’s work and home life. Many employees (as noted in the Canadian study) experience a sense of ‘spillover’ from their work into their personal life. This can express itself in many different ways, the need to serve in an emergency capacity (such as a doctor or therapist), the presence of role ambiguity and the need to bring an extensive amount of work home to complete, shift work that becomes disruptive, and the presence of a manager or supervisor who continually pressures an employee to work long overtime hours. Any of these factors can lead to the accumulation of a great deal of stress. The higher the stress level, the more likely it is that an individual will begin to experience job burnout.
The presence of a healthy working environment is also a significant factor in the accumulation of stress on the job. Many people work in dangerous environments. Some people work in an inherently safe environment but the physical environment is uncomfortable. Skinner and Roche (2005) state:
In addition to safety and physical security, a pleasant working environment can also have a signifi cant impact on worker morale. For example, adequate space, light, equipment and physical location (e.g., proximity to transport, cafes and other services) are important aspects of a pleasant physical working environment (p. 15).
There are many additional factors that can lead to the accumulation of stress on the job, which ends up in job burnout. They include the following: social and emotional support on the job, the ability to relate in a positive way to one’s colleagues, recognition of a person’s skills and abilities, the freedom to express one’s opinions and ideas, flexible working conditions when necessary and good benefits. Job burnout can be a reaction to the relationship between the individual and their working environment (Skinner & Roche, 2005). When an individual feels that relationship does not work, or has become dysfunctional then stress begins to accumulate and the accumulation of stress ultimately leads to job burnout.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Job Burnout
Maslow’s theory of needs can also shed light on the development of job burnout. This famous list of thirteen needs ranging from our lowest physiological needs to the highest need of self-actualization provides us with insight into the ways in which people can relate to their work environment. “Conventional human resources theories, developed more than 50 years ago by Maslow and Herzberg, suggest that satisfied employees tend to be more productive, creative and committed to their employers’ (Paleologou et al, 2006).
The second highest and the highest needs are identified as self-esteem and self-actualization. They are defined respectively as: “Our needs for achievement, adequacy, recognition, status, appreciation, and mastery” (self-esteem) and “Our need to actualize our potential as humans. Because each of us is unique, this need expresses itself uniquely for each individual” (Brenner, 2008).
With respect to job burnout, it is not difficult to see the relationship between Maslow’s theory and the existence of burnout. In Maslow’s theory, a person’s highest need is to feel a sense of actualizing our true potential. For an individual in a job that is beneath their abilities or skill level, unchallenging, unsatisfying, and perhaps even boring, the person could easily begin to dissociate themselves from the job. The person’s level of commitment begins to decline and eventually they are just ‘going through the motions’. The job becomes a chore and not a place to actualize their creative needs and desires. The person keeps going simply because they have to make money (i.e. pay the bills). However, the person feels inherently unsatisfied and their performance begins to decline.
In terms of self-esteem, once again it is not difficult to see the relationship between the need for recognition, status and achievement and job burnout. The modern workplace is one with an unfortunate reality. This reality is that many workers are caught in meaningless jobs. There are literally millions of workers stuck in factory jobs, working as cashiers or in fast foods where they feel undervalued and underappreciated. Their daily work life provides absolutely no recognition for their talents and abilities. However, the person may not have had the opportunity for a solid education. As a result, this person works in their job with absolutely no sense of reward or achievement.
In a study conducted in Alaska Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is stated as important in understanding job satisfaction and job burnout. “…it provides a classification system for human needs, but also because it provides concrete implications for managing these needs with complex organizations” (“Factors Influencing Retention”, 2004, p. 19). One of the implications of the hierarchy is even more basic than this. The theory is that if a person’s basic needs are not met by their job than they have absolutely no chance to meet their higher needs. In other words, Maslow’s theory suggests that our jobs must meet a long list of needs from basic physiological needs up to and including our highest need of self-actualization. If a job does not provide this then people begin to dissociate from their work and there is the possibility of job burnout.
People who work on job sites where the basic needs are met but the higher needs are not met are at just as much risk as those whose lower needs are not met. The study suggests that in both cases people feel unfulfilled and become ‘disgruntled workers’. The job becomes increasingly less important and job burnout is the result. (“Factors Influencing Retention”, 2004).
In a study on correctional officers in Texas, the hierarchy is considered an important theoretical orientation for understanding job burnout. This study points out that the hierarchy of needs does not just mean the needs of employees but managers and supervisors. If a manager is feeling burned out, or they are in a situation where their needs are not being, their ability to provide appropriate support for the people they supervise is likely to be compromised. The research suggests that the manager/supervisor must feel a sense of self-esteem and self-actualization on the job. When the manager does feel this way then he or she is in a position to respect and understand the ways in which the hierarchy of needs applies to other employees (Cardenas, 2007).
People who have risen to the level of manager or supervisor may seem to be inherently self-actualized. However, the study points out this is not necessarily true. A manager can actually end up simply being a ‘mouthpiece’ for a company and thus become resentful of their position in the company. Cardenas (2007) also points out that when the needs of the manager are being met, they are more likely to want to meet the needs of others. If not, the manager is too busy trying to get their own needs met to think about anyone else’s needs. In this situation, the employees are left to their own devices and job burnout can be the result.
Maslow’s theory suggests that people are constantly driving to meet this hierarchy of needs. Therefore, if we cannot meet our own needs, all we can think about is how to achieve that goal. The goals of others become immaterial and unimportant. To expound on this further, a manager who is too busy trying to get his or her needs met becomes completely uninvolved with the people he or she supervises. The manager is being driven entirely by their own ambition which is not getting their needs met. They too can dissociate with the workplace and become disinterested in anything but trying to get out of the workplace and move on to a new job. The need to meet their own satisfaction is primary and everything else is secondary.
Employees who are faced with a dissociative manager will likely become disinterested in their own job. The employees will literally have no one to relate to when it comes to their own needs. In this scenario, both manager and employees are disgruntled and this leads to job burnout for either, or both. With respect to Maslow’s theory of the need for self-esteem, this study provides valuable information from workers in the correctional system who suffer because of managers who are too busy trying to get their own needs met to provide proper supervision for their employees. The correctional system is one of the most demanding job fields in the nation. Employees can easily feel down on themselves working amongst a group of individuals who are considered the ‘scourge of society’. If they are not provided with that sense of doing a good job, and providing a valuable service, it is easy to see how they can experience job burnout.
However, Maslow’s theory really applies to anyone on any job. There is hardly an individual who goes to work and does not want to feel good about themselves in the job. There is a constant need for us as individuals to be recognized as working hard and fulfilling the needs of our employers. This makes people feel useful and valued. Maslow’s theory enables us to see the importance of this continued recognition. The absence of this recognition can easily make individuals feel taken advantage of and undervalued. These feelings in turn can turn into a sense of being useless, unimportant and this turns to job burnout.
Motivation and Job Burnout
Another valuable theory in the research on job burnout is that of motivation. However, motivation is a complex idea. There are many ways to feel motivated on the job. One researcher suggests that motivation is not an intrinsic factor in employees. In other words, we are motivated to work by the financial need, but people, in general need to be motivated. This theory is, in some respects, the opposite of Maslow’s hierarchy. The motivational theory suggests that this is an external and not an internal factor. People who take on a specific job want to be treated in a way that motivates them to do well, to succeed and attain increasingly higher levels of achievement. Rubin (2006) states that it is incumbent upon the employer to motivate the workforce. “What incentives and rewards can we use to keep them motivated to enjoy their jobs and stay with our company? Particularly, how do we do this with a multigenerational employee base?”
This theory suggests that most people come into work with the sense of what’s in it for me? In terms of this approach, the theory states that people are seeking to be treated in such a manner that they will want to be achiever. However, people don’t go into a job with the intrinsic need to achieve. In this theory, the employer must provide incentives to keep people on the job. If the employer does not, then employees become dissatisfied. After a period of time, the employee will do increasingly less work, become disgruntled and this results in a total dissatisfaction. Once a person is completely dissatisfied, they are at high risk for job burnout. The person becomes a clock watcher and merely puts in time. The employee no longer has any emotional or intellectual connection with their work. The job is simply another chore.
Another aspect of this theory is that every generation sees motivation in a different way. “Each generation has a different set of values and needs, which means you will need to get creative with incentives and rewards” (Rubin, 2006). Some of the incentives identified include: monetary rewards, flexible schedules, bonus programs, annual increases, daycare programs, professional development, client recognition, promotions, tuition reimbursements and tickets to special events or concerts (Rubin, 2006). However, there is not always the need for strictly monetary rewards. Some employees are touched when a manager says thank you for a job well done. In today’s increasingly technological workplace, a manager who walks up to an employee and shakes their hand is far more personal and meaningful than an email that says ‘good job’.
Some researchers suggest that motivation is more of an internal factor that can still be influenced by external factors. “…managers can satisfy employees so they become motivated and of all the functions a manager performs, motivating employees is arguably the most complex, since motivation is influenced by both financial and non-financial incentives” (Paleologou et al, 2006). In this understanding of motivational theory, the factors that motivate people are constantly changing. At certain points in our lives we may be strongly motivated by money and the desire to save for our futures. There will be other times in our lives when we are strongly motivated by the need to succeed and be professionally recognized. This same study states that job satisfaction and job motivation are often used as interchangeable terms, but this is a mistake.
Job satisfaction is a person’s emotional response to his or her job condition, whereas motivation is the driving force to pursue and satisfy needs. The need for motivation stems from the need for survival and motivated employees help organizations survive
(Paleologou et al, 2006).
Another definition of work motivation reads as follows: “…a set of energetic forces that originate within as well as beyond an individual’s being. It is a psychological process resulting from the reciprocal interaction between the individual and the environment that affects a person’s choices, effort, and persistence” (Latham & Ernst, 2006, p. 181). This definition suggests that motivation is an inter-connected dynamic that exists between employer and employee. One can assume therefore that when the environment and/or the interaction impact negatively on the worker then their motivational level will decrease and job burnout can be one of the results.
An additional aspect to motivation theory is that of job design. The premise here is that the way in which a person’s job is constructed can affect their level of motivation. For example, people most often accept a job with very specific ideas in mind about what they expect from the job and what they believe will be expected from them. Any deviance or difference in those expectations can quickly cause a problem with worker motivation. One of the key issues in job design is that of time. People also take jobs with a very specific notion of how much time will be required to do their job. Most people want to be able to do their job within the confines of the work week. When this variable changes, there can be a huge problem with worker motivation. Employees who find they often have to work late, take work home and/or work on the weekends will quickly be at risk for job burnout. Their motivation to do the job becomes increasingly less with time as they find themselves saddled with far too much work. “The failure to include time in job design theory may limit the theory’s ability to accurately predict individual attitudes and behaviors in organizations…” (Fried et al, 2007, p. 912).
In addition to the notion of time, other aspects of job design that are extremely important to worker motivation are perceptions of advancement opportunities, perceptions of job stimulation, and the need for personal growth on the job. Each of these can serve as prime motivators in the workplace. Once again it might seem tempting to describe these factors as job satisfaction, but that has already been defined. Job stimulation, the presence of opportunities for growth and advancement can impact on the ways in which a person reacts to their job on a daily basis. Employees who feel they are stuck in a ‘dead end job’ will certainly feel less motivated to work harder.
In this theory, career stages is also an important factor. An individual who spends many years on a job with no advancement opportunities and no chance for growth will certainly be at risk for burnout. People who go to work and know intrinsically that their hard work can reap substantial rewards are more likely to feel motivated and less likely to experience job burnout. According to one research study the following factors increase a person’s chances of feeling motivated.
The increased complexity in one’s job due to crafting may involve, for example, voluntarily learning new skills (higher skill variety) that would enable the employee to handle new assignments; accepting increased responsibility for the totality of assignments (higher task identity), or taking on increased latitude in decision making (higher autonomy).
(Fried et al, 2007, p. 918).
While there is not an abundance of literature on job design and motivation, this certainly appears to be a promising area of research in terms of understanding workplace motivation and the risk for burnout.
Each of these three theories holds some promise for increasing our understanding of why job burnout occurs. The accumulation of stress on the job leaves people feeling exhausted, over-worked and often unappreciated. When this stress level becomes too high, it is easy to see that people can experience job burnout. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there is an intrinsic understanding that people need to feel a sense of self-esteem and self-actualization. People want to be recognized and appreciated for their efforts, and they want to succeed. For those individuals who do not have these factors present in their jobs, work can become a place where they feel unappreciated and under-valued. In motivation theory, people need to receive a sense of incentives for their work. People want to go to work and know they will earn good money, and a wide range of emotional and monetary benefits. Each of these theories provides us with insight into why people experience a sense of dissatisfaction with work and are at risk for job burnout.
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