Predicting Burnout

Topic: Burnout, Turnover
Publication: The Journal of Applied Psychology (2008)
Article: Early predictors of job burnout and engagement.
Blogger: Larry Martinez

Burnout refers to a sense of just being ‘over’ one’s job, as in, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m burned out.”  This is a problem for organizations and for employees, right?  Ideally, a sense of engagement (the opposite of burnout) is what everyone wants. So, here’s the point of the current article: Maslach and Leiter found a way to predict who is likely to experience burnout before it
actually happens. That means that by using their method, it could be possible to keep people from getting burned out in the first place.

The authors break burnout into two states: exhaustion and cynicism.  In a nutshell, if employees experience both, they are burned out; if they experience neither, they’re engaged.  The tricky part comes when employees experience one or the other (we’ll call these ‘danger’ states). That is, if they’re exhausted, they’re more likely to also become cynical (and vice versa), qualifying them for full-blown burnout.

The Method
First, test employees to see if they fall into one of the ‘danger’ states (either exhausted or cynical) and if they perceive any unfairness* in their jobs. If they fall into a danger state but see the organization as fair, just make sure the perceived fairness stays high. This means being upfront with employees and explaining organizational changes. If they’re either exhausted or cynical and also experience unfairness, you’ve got a problem and you need to do something quick. What that something is will depend on the situation you’re dealing with; just know that “Hawaiian shirt day” may not cut it at this point.

Blogger’s note:  It’s interesting to me that the authors never outline the specific organizational consequences of burnout; they just say it’s bad. I imagine it’s related to turnover, but they never say that.  I’m especially convinced of this considering the similarity between this theory and that of the unfolding model of voluntary turnover (Lee & Mitchell, 1996) in which image violations (‘incongruity’ in this article) can lead to turnover. It’s much the same argument, just with different outcomes.  I think the authors should have drawn a link to turnover (or another consequence of burnout) to give the article a little more punch (reason organizations should care) and clear up any redundancy with the unfolding model.

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