Burnout and Health
Michael P. Leiter
University of California, Berkeley
Work plays a central role in people's physical and psychological well.-being. Not only does it provide income and other tangible resources, but it is a source of status, social support, life satisfaction, and self-identity. However, work can also have adverse effects on the individual worker, especially with respect to health (Ilgen, 1990). The risks to physical well-being, in terms of injuries and diseases caused by the job, have long been the concern of the field of occupational health, but it is only recently that more attention has been given to job risk factors for psychological well-being (e.g., Sauter, Murphy, & Hurrell, 1990).
Much of this attention has focused on job stress, which is a general rubric referring to the impact of external job demands (stressors) on the worker's internal experience (stress response), and to the subsequent outcomes of this process. Stress impairs performance by reducing people's capacity for complex physical skills and by impairing cognitive functioning. Stress compromises the immune system, increasing the risk of viral and bacterial infections. The chronic tension associated with stress increases vulnerability to musculoskeletal problems. Empirical evidence has been found for the negative effects of job stress on physical health (especially cardiovascular problems), as well as on psychological well-being (e.g., job dissatisfaction, negative affect). Job stress is also predictive of various behavioral responses, such as lowered job performance, problems with family relationships, and self-damaging behaviors (see Kahn & Byosiere, 1992; Sauter &Murphy, 1995).
One type of job stress that has been studied in recent years is burnout, which involves a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job (Maslach, 1982; Maslach & Leiter, 1997). The three key dimensions of burnout are an overwhelming exhaustion; feelings of frustration, anger, and cynicism; and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure. The experience impairs both personal and social functioning. Whereas some people may quit the job as a result of burnout, others will stay on, but they will only do the bare minimum (rather than their very best). This decline in the quality of work and in both physical and psychological health can be very costly-not just for the individual worker, but for everyone affected by that person.
Burnout is recognized as a particular occupational hazard for various people-oriented professions, such as human services, education, and health care. The therapeutic relationships that such providers develop with their service recipients can be quite stressful because they demand an ongoing and intense level of personal, emotional contact. Within such occupations, the norms are clear, if not always stated explicitly: to be selfless and put others' needs first, to work long hours and do whatever it takes to help a client or patient or student, to go the extra mile and to give one's all. When such norms are combined with work settings that are high in demands and low in resources, then the risk for burnout is high (Maslach & Goldberg, 1998).