Vocational Education, Self-Employment and Burnout among Australian Workers

Article excerpt


It is generally accepted that formal education improves productivity at work. Human capital theorists argue that education bestows expectations and attitudes which bring about greater efficiency and satisfaction (Wan, 2007). Furthermore, formal education provides the human capital which reduces the likelihood of becoming alienated or disaffected with one's work, or what social scientists call burnout. Burnout can manifest itself in a number of negative workplace behaviours, including absenteeism, high accident rates, poor work output and poor interpersonal relationships in the workplace (Australian Government, NOHSC, 2004). The existing literature on burnout is mostly informed by the psychology of particular occupations, and occasionally only task-related training or events in specific work locations are considered as mediating factors (Goddard, Creed, and Patton 2001). In contrast, the sociological approach to burnout focuses on broader structural contexts, i.e. differences across groups of occupations, employment situations and a range of educational credentials considered simultaneously. Our goal is to complement the existing, primarily psychological, studies with a sociological analysis of burnout among the Australian self-employed and employees, who work across the private and the public sector on either a full-time or part-time basis. To the best of our knowledge, our study is unique in comparing the propensity to burnout of workers with more academic versus vocational credentials. In particular we are interested to know whether vocational education may serve as a buffer against disaffection with one's work, and how this may vary between the self-employed and employees.

What is burnout?

Burnout or 'role alienation', with its psychological manifestations such as job frustration and the feeling of powerlessness, has been at the centre of sociological analyses of work since Marx's exposition of alienation first became influential. As a structurally reinforced predisposition to apathy and feelings of ineffectiveness and failure, occupational burnout was researched in bureaucratic settings and the service sector, including healthcare and education (Dworkin 1987). In the Marxist tradition, alienation is inherently linked to job content and, in particular, workers' autonomy. However, research on teachers suggests that burnout is best understood as the outcome of a 'basic contradiction' between the training and the work experience of employees (Dworkin 1987: 68-69). This approach underscores as correlates of the propensity to feel exhaustion at work not only the importance of job conditions, but also to the process of preparatory education itself.

Psychologists, such as Maslach, Cherniss and Pines, regard burnout as the result of the failure of an individual to cope with stress. They see its symptoms in feelings of fatigue, hopelessness, depression and low morale. However, sociologists such as Dworkin, LeCompte and Townsend focus on alienation which is embedded in social organisations and social structures. They see burnout reflected in negative attitudes such as meaninglessness and isolation, and in the negative relationships towards one's work or colleagues. (See Dworkin, 1997, for a review of these approaches.)

In this study we follow the more sociological definition of burnout developed in research on American teachers (Dworkin 1987). Dworkin combined the psychological and sociological traditions, and described burnout as:

'... an extreme form of role-specific alienation characterized by a sense that one's work is meaningless and that one is powerless to effect changes which could make the work more meaningful. Further, this sense of meaninglessness and powerlessness is heightened by a belief that the norms associated with the role and the setting are absent, conflicting, or inoperative, and that one is alone and isolated among one's colleagues and clients. …