Well-Being and Burnout in the Workplace Research Paper

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Job-related well-being is a specific aspect of subjective well-being and comprises as positive features phenomena such as job satisfaction, job attachment, involvement, and job morale; impaired job-related well-being includes experiences such as job tension, depression, burnout, and alienation from work (Warr 1990). The well-being concept refers both to minimal and temporary changes in employee mood and affect and to long-term disturbances of mental health (e.g., chronic anxiety or psychosomatic complaints). Research has paid more attention to long-term job-related wellbeing than to more momentary fluctuations in mood and affect. It is typical for work-related research to examine mental health and well-being in normally working samples who are not psychiatric patients.

1. Conceptualizations Of Well-Being And Burnout

Generally, it is assumed that well-being is not a unidimensional concept (Diener et al. 1999). This holds also for job-related well-being. However, authors disagree about the exact number and content of the separate dimensions of job-related well-being. Based on the conceptualization of arousal and pleasure as two independent dimensions, Warr (1987) proposed a model of job-related well-being comprising three dimensions: the first dimension runs from displeasure to pleasure, the second from anxiety to comfort, and the third from depression to enthusiasm. Additionally, feelings of competence and aspiration also can be regarded as facets of job-related well-being (Warr 1990).

Burnout is a specific and severe form of disturbed job-related well-being, originally mainly observed in human service professionals. The burnout syndrome comprises as key dimensions emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (i.e., negative and cynical attitudes towards one’s clients or patients), and reduced personal accomplishment (Maslach and Jackson 1981). Researchers have observed that burnout does not develop only in human service professions, but also that it can occur in practically all kinds of jobs.

2. Theoretical Models On Job-Related Well-Being And Burnout

In the late twentieth century, researchers put much emphasis in the development of theoretical models on the relationship between work situation factors and job-related well-being (Kahn and Byosiere 1992). Among the most prominent models are the job characteristics model (Hackman and Oldham 1976), the job demand–job control model (Karasek and Theorell 1990), and the vitamin model (Warr 1987).

In their job characteristics model, Hackman and Oldham (1976) specified five core job characteristics which they assumed to be crucial for high internal work motivation and employee satisfaction: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback from the job. These job characteristics are expected to impact critical psychological states (i.e., experienced meaningfulness of the work, experienced responsibilities for work outcomes, and knowledge of the results of work activities), which in turn impact on the motivation and satisfaction as outcome variables. Furthermore, Hackman and Oldham proposed that moderators such as growth need strength, contextual satisfaction, knowledge, skills, and abilities have an effect on the relationship between core job characteristics and critical psychological states and also on the relationship between critical psychological states and outcome variables.

Similarly to the job characteristics model, the job demand–job control model (Karasek and Theorell 1990) received much attention within work and organizational psychology. In the original version, the job demand–job control model describes two dimensions relevant for job-related well-being: job demands and job control. In this model, job demands refer to high workload and time pressure; job control includes decision authority and intellectual discretion. It is assumed that the combination of high job demands and low job control resulting in high-strain jobs has severe negative effects on employee well-being. The model assumes that a combination of high job demands and high job control results in active jobs which have more beneficial effects for employee wellbeing. More recently, other work situation factors, such as social support and informational control, have been incorporated into the job demands–job control model (Karasek and Theorell 1990, Terry and Jimmieson 1999). These extended models state that the effects of high-strain jobs will be most negative under conditions of low social support. High informational control, however, is predicted to attenuate the negative impact of high-strain jobs.

In his vitamin model, Warr (1987) proposed that job-related well-being is affected by job characteristics in a way similar to the effects of vitamins on physical health. Basically, the vitamin model suggests that some job characteristics have a linear effect whereas others have a nonlinear effect on well-being. Among the job characteristics assumed to be linearly related to well-being are physical security, a valued social position, and availability of money. Job characteristics assumed to show a curvilinear relationship with wellbeing include opportunity for personal control, opportunity for skill use, externally generated goals (i.e., demands), variety, environmental clarity, and opportunity for interpersonal contact. More specifically, the vitamin model assumes that well-being increases as these latter job characteristics increase; however, at a very high level, these job characteristics will cause a decrement in well-being.

Specific models have been developed which aim at explaining the emergence and development of burnout (Schaufeli and Buunk 1996). These models refer to individual, interpersonal, and organizational processes. For example, with respect to individual processes, burnout has been explained as resulting from a pattern of wrong and unrealistic expectations, as progressive disillusionment, as a failure in keeping up an idealized self-image, as a narcissistic disorder, as a disturbed action process, and as loss of coping resources. At the interpersonal level, the specific emotionally demanding relationship between caregiver and clients in addition to unsatisfactory social comparison and unbalanced social exchange processes are regarded as being the main causes of an individual developing burnout symptoms. With respect to organizational processes, individual burnout has been described as an effect of an unhealthy organization.

3. Empirical Studies About Predictors Of Job-Related Well-Being And Burnout

Stressful working conditions were found to be negatively related to employee well-being, in both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies (Kahn and Byosiere 1992, Zapf et al. 1996). Such stressful working conditions include physical stressors (e.g., noise), role stressors (e.g., role ambiguity, role conflict), work overload or time pressure, and more specific stressors such as monotonous work and attentional demands. Similarly, two out of the three burnout factors, i.e. emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, were found to be substantially correlated with job stressors such as lack of role clarity, role conflict, role stress, stressful events, workload, and work pressure (Lee and Ashforth 1996).

Moreover, other aspects in the work situation such as specified in the job characteristics model are positively related to employee well-being, particularly job satisfaction (Fried and Ferris 1987). Among these job characteristics, job control plays an important role. Job control is not only directly related to employee well-being but also acts as a buffer in the stress process. This buffer effect implies that in work situations with high-control stressful working conditions have a less negative impact on employee wellbeing than in work situations with low control. However, unlike depressive symptoms or anxiety, burnout seems to be unrelated to job control (Lee and Ashforth 1996).

Other work-related variables which play an important role in employee well-being are social support and group process characteristics, particularly a positive team climate and high cohesiveness within the team (Lee and Ashforth 1996, Sonnentag 1996). Persons who receive a high level of high social support from their supervisors and co-workers and also persons who experience a good team climate and a high cohesiveness within their teams enjoy a better well-being than persons who lack social support and who suffer from an unfavorable group process.

Additionally to these general findings about stressful working conditions, control at work and social support, research revealed that there is substantial individual variation in the relationship between work situation variables and individual well-being. Particularly an internal locus of control seems to protect one’s well-being, also in relatively unfavorable work situations (Kahn and Byosiere 1992).

Moreover, job-related well-being is not only affected by a person’s work situation or an interaction between work situation variables and individual characteristics such as locus of control. A number of studies have shown that personality dispositions such as negative affectivity are directly related to job-related well-being (Warr 1996). Also life satisfaction was found to have an effect on job-related well-being.

Taken together, job-related well-being and burnout have multiple causes, which lie partially in the person’s work situation and partially in his or her personality. It seems that particularly the combination and interplay of various factors are responsible for a person’s job-related well-being

4. Empirical Studies About The Consequences Of Job-Related Well-Being And Burnout

Low job-related well-being and burnout are not only unpleasant experiences. They may threaten the individual’s functioning within the work organization. Empirical research shows positive correlations be-tween job-related well-being and job performance (Warr 1996). However, these correlations are relatively small in size and do not necessarily imply that wellbeing affects performance. It might be that performance has an effect on job-related well-being or that both well-being and performance are influenced by other factors such a leadership behavior. Moreover, studies revealed that impaired job-related well-being and burnout show small to moderate correlations with absenteeism and turnover intentions, two phenomena associated with high organizational costs (Lee and Ashforth 1996, Warr 1996).

5. Intervention Programs

Different kinds of interventions aim at the protection and improvement of job-related well-being. Most interventions are oriented towards the individual, i.e., to the way an individual perceives or deals with unfavorable working situations. Other individual oriented interventions are designed to directly influence the individual’s psychological and physical well-being, for example, by progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, cognitive-behavioral interventions or meditation techniques (Kahn and Byosiere 1992, Murphy 1996). Empirical evaluations of these programs show that a combination of physical relaxation exercises and cognitive-behavioral interventions work best, particularly with respect to general aspects of well-being and the emotional exhaustion component of burnout (Murphy 1996, Schaufeli and Buunk 1996).

Another approach to improve job-related wellbeing consists of workplace interventions. During such workplace interventions, jobs are redesigned, e.g., by increasing employee control at work, by reducing specific job stressors or by introducing self-managed work groups. Empirical studies show substantial beneficial effects of such workplace interventions on job-related well-being (Kahn and Byosiere 1992). Since workplace interventions tackle the source of disturbances of well-being, they are to be preferred to individual-oriented intervention programs.

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