Organizational Factors Contributing to Worker Frustration: The Precursor to Burnout

By Lewandowski, Cathleen A. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Organizational Factors Contributing to Worker Frustration: The Precursor to Burnout


Lewandowski, Cathleen A., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This study examined the organizational factors that contribute to workers' frustration with their work situation. The sample included 141 service professionals who attended workshops on burnout in 2001. The purpose of the workshops was to increase awareness regarding the organizational factors that could contribute to burnout. Findings indicate that factors most directly affecting clients were predictive of frustration, rather than factors that may indirectly support service quality or factors impacting workers' professional autonomy. A sense of powerlessness and isolation was also predictive of frustration, suggesting that participants viewed workplace problems as a private rather than an organizational concern. To address workplace concerns, workers can empower themselves for social action by engaging in a dialogue to examine the relationship between work and individual well-being.

Keywords: workers, worker frustration, burnout, empowerment, powerlessness, isolation, workplace

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This study examined the organizational factors that contribute to social workers' frustration with their work situation. Understanding workplace factors that may contribute to workers' frustration can shed light on the process of burnout, since, in a stage model of burnout, frustration is characterized as the stage prior to burnout (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2000). Most studies on burnout tend to assess individual characteristics that either contribute to or are symptomatic of burnout, while minimizing organizational factors. By focusing on individual factors, burnout is characterized as a private concern, while an examination of the work environment frames the debate as a public concern. In 1997, Arches identified several workplace concerns related to worker burnout, suggesting that workers should commit themselves to social action aimed at changing conditions that contribute to burnout among social service professionals. This study examined social workers' and other helping professionals' perceptions of these identified workplace conditions and assessed the extent to which they are associated with workplace frustration. Recommendations for change are made and are based on the study's findings.

Review of the Literature

Burnout is defined as a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job (Maslach 1993; Maslach, et.al., 2000). While initial research was conducted in the social service arena, current research indicates that significant proportions of the population, from factory workers to surgeons, have advanced stages of burnout (Golembiewski, Boudreau, Sun & Luc 1998).

Self-reporting of burnout is most often labeled as feelings of frustration (Keenan & Newton 1984). Symptoms experienced by individuals range from mild frustration, anxiety and depression to more severe emotional reactions often described as emotional exhaustion, or the draining of emotional resources (Daily 1970; Koocher, 1979). Other symptoms include a feeling of depersonalization, described as the development of negative, cynical attitudes towards the recipients of one's service (Maslach 1993; Maslach, et.al., 2000; Schaufali & Burenk 1996), sense of helplessness, progressive apathy, colds and illness in times of stress, becoming angry with clients and coworkers, feeling of immobilization and being pressured, overzealous relief at the end of the day, disillusionment with field of work, increased alcohol or drug use, and work related dreams with anxiety and guilt (Koocher, 1979; Lewis 1980; Lee & Ashforth 1990; Renjilan, Baum & Landry 1998).

Organizational factors identified as contributing to burnout include multiple sponsorship of social work agencies, increased regulation, role conflict, downsizing, and role ambiguity. These organizational factors are of particular concern in the current practice climate of increased privatization (Lewandowski, 1998; Rosenthal, 2000) managed care (Crotty, 1999; U.

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