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Identifying and Minimizing Employee Burnout

Occupational stress is becoming somewhat of an epidemic in today’s organizations. Not only does stress impair employee performance, it is also linked to negative effects on employees’ health and well-being. These negative outcomes result from workers being faced with job demands they perceive as beyond their control. Although the relationship may seem simple (stress at work à adverse consequences), this may not always be the case. Mediating factors may be playing a significant role in this relationship. Identifying these factors can be critical in recognizing and minimizing burnout, while increasing engagement.

Burnout and its Facets

“Burnout is a psychological syndrome that is a response to interpersonal stressors that are encountered on the job over a prolonged period of time.” Two primary facets of burnout are exhaustion and cynicism. When one of the two facets is present, it can be an early warning sign for burnout, however, does not ensure that burnout will occur. For example, if one is experiencing unfair treatment in the workplace, he or she may begin to become cynical. This does not necessarily lead to exhaustion, and there is a low likelihood that burnout will occur, however, organizations should take cautionary measures to ensure this does not happen. On the other hand, if one is experiencing unfair treatment (leading to cynicism), and the work demands are high (leading to exhaustion), burnout is much more likely. The two facets seem to work with one another and in many cases actually reinforce one another.

What is the “Tipping Point”?

If employees are experiencing one of the two facets of burnout (exhaustion or cynicism) AND the position or job does not match their knowledge or skills, they will ultimately reach a “tipping point” and burnout will ensue. This could be because they are experiencing additional stress because they are unable to handle the position successfully.

What Does Engagement have to do with Stress?

“Engagement is the energetic state of involvement with personally fulfilling activities that enhance one’s sense of personal efficacy.” Engagement is the converse of burnout. Many employers strive to “engage” their employees so they are satisfied with their position. To determine if employees are engaged, we must look at the facets of burnout. If BOTH cynicism and exhaustion are present then burnout is likely to occur, however, if BOTH are absent then engagement is likely to occur.

Implications for Practice

Several important implications come from this research. First, if the warning signs of burnout are indentified early on, they can be prevented and even transformed into engagement. Using burnout measures, such as the Maslach Burnout Inventory –General Survey, can identify these early indicators.
  • If scores reveal EITHER exhaustion or cynicism, then changing the employee’s situation should be considered, while the change is still relatively easy to implement.
  • If scores reveal a “tipping point” pattern (the person’s knowledge and skills do not match the demands of the position and a facet, either cynicism or exhaustion, is present) then immediate action should be taken because employees in this state are extremely susceptible to burnout.
  • If scores reveal BOTH exhaustion and cynicism, then the intervention will have to be more intensive and extensive – the change will be more difficult.
It is important to not only look at individual employees, but also groups or units of employees to identify if a team or work-group is experiencing burnout. This may require the implementation of a broader, organizational intervention rather than the individual intervention discussed previously. Finally, increased burnout will result in a more negative evaluation of the workplace, whereas increased engagement will not change the evaluation of the organization. Therefore, it is imperative that organizations intervene prior to burnout as an employee’s negative view of their workplace can adversely affect both their production and performance.

Final Thoughts

As is the case with many interventions, early detection of burnout is crucial. This will aid in prevention of problems before they become too serious. Repeated burnout assessments on a regular basis can ensure that this detection occurs. If an employee possesses the potential for burnout, then individual corrective action can be taken. The good news is that burnout is detectable and if interventions are correctly implemented, preventable.

Elizabeth Allen


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Maslach, C. & Leiter, M. (2008). Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement.  Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 93 (3), 498 – 512.