How Burnout Develops

In a study that tracked individuals for a year, Christina Maslach and I identified that there is a tendency for exhaustion and cynicism to line up eventually[i]. First, ¾ of the participants had consistent scores: if they scored high on exhaustion, they scored high on cynicism; if they scored low on exhaustion, they scored low on cynicism. But the other ¼ scored inconsistently: high on one aspect and low on the other. A year later we found an interesting development: the large majority of the people in the consistent groups were still in the consistent groups. That means that if they started the year with negative scores on both exhaustion and cynicism, they were very likely to be in the same situation a year later. However, people who started the year with inconsistent scores were very unlikely to still have inconsistent scores. If they felt exhausted but not cynical at the beginning, they would definitely change in some way.

That raises the very intriguing question: which way do they change? And the answer turns out to be “that depends”. The big issue that made all the difference for this organization was justice. People who at the beginning of the study rated the organization as a fair employer that treated employees with respect were in the work engagement group one year later. In contrast, those who believed the organization treated them unfairly or with disrespect appeared to resolve things negatively, and they were in the burnout group one year later.

These results have implications for someone like Rosa. It could be that over time, her chronic exhaustion from too many shifts will wear away her involvement. She may become both exhausted and cynical. Or in the opposite direction, her sense of involvement may help her to withstand the demands of an unrelenting workload. She may become both energetic and involved over time despite a demanding worklife. According to our research, fairness makes a difference. If Rosa believes that the trauma center treats her and her colleagues fairly, she is much more likely to resolve things in the positive direction which would lead her toward work engagement. If she perceives injustice at work, burnout becomes a stronger possibility.

[i]Maslach, C & Leiter, M. P. (2008). Early predictors of job burnout and engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 498-512.

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