Predicting Burnout Among Employees

Burnout is a big problem for companies, who rely on employees to be actively engaged and energetic at work. However, it may be that some people are more or less intrinsically susceptible to burnout and disengagement at work. That is, some people just have burnout-prone personality characteristics and thus may be unwise investments for employers. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could figure out who these people are likely to be? Researchers (Salmela-Aro et al., 2011) address this issue directly.


The study followed 292 university students through their academic and subsequent careers (sometimes for as long as 18 years) to find personality characteristics that might predict burnout and disengagement. Specifically, they found that social strategies used during college were indicators of later reported levels of burnout and engagement. Social strategies include the extent to which someone is positively (optimism) or negatively (pessimism) inclined to value and approach social relationships. So, if you have an optimistic social orientation, you are likely to (1) build relationships with coworkers who can act as resources, (2) ask for help when problems arise, and (3) have support from others when the going gets tough. The opposite would be true for someone with a pessimistic (avoidant) social orientation. Having a high positive orientation in college (and a low negative orientation), and the extent to which this orientation became more positive as college progressed, were related to lower levels of burnout and higher engagement in subsequent jobs. 


These results suggest that those who have more optimal social strategies (e.g., can make friends easily, are willing to rely on others for help, can build social support networks) can more effectively deal with work pressure and avoid burnout and stay more engaged on the job. Thus, there seems to be something to be said about workers who can get along well with others. 


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