Job Burnout

By Angerer, John M. | Journal of Employment Counseling, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Job Burnout


Angerer, John M., Journal of Employment Counseling


In presenting an overview of job burnout, the author discusses the pioneering research and current theories of the burnout construct, along with the history of the main burnout assessment--the Maslach Burnout Inventory (C. Maslach & S. E. Jackson, 1981). The author examines the exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy dimensions of burnout and the job-person fit framework of C. Maslach, W. B. Sehaufeli, and M. P. Letter (2001). The current literature pertaining to the 6 dimensions of burnout is examined. The author concludes that an understanding of the interaction between employee and his or her environment is critical for grasping the origin of burnout.

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The contemporary idea of burnout is viewed as a recent phenomenon related to the difficulties of modern work. However, the idea of occupational stress has been around for many years. In the early twentieth century, Sir William Osler "equated 'stress and strain' with hard work and worry, and suggested that these conditions contributed to the development of heart disease" (Spielberger, 1979, p. 9). The environmental conditions that are inextricably linked to job burnout began with the rise of capitalism and the division of labor. As Smith (1776/1976) wrote in The Wealth of Nations,

   The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple
   operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same,
   or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his
   understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out
   expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally
   loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes
   as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to
   become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of
   relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but
   of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and
   consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of
   the ordinary duties of private life. His dexterity at his own
   particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the
   expence (sic) of his intellectual, social, and martial values. But
   in every improved and civilized society this is the state into
   which the labouring (sic) poor, that is, the great body of the
   people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains
   to prevent it. (pp. 302-303)

The rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, with all of their technological and material advantages, were not embraced by everyone. For example, the Luddites of England resisted change by smashing machinery in factories as a defense of their way of life:

   They knew perfectly well what advantages mechanization would bring
   to most people, but they saw with equal clarity how it would bring
   ruin to their own way of life, especially to their children who
   were being employed as virtual slave laborers in factories.
   (Postman, 1999, p. 46)

As industrial manufacturing became an important part of Western economies, management began to study ways to improve worker productivity. Frederick Taylor, the "father of scientific management," studied businesses and convinced manufacturers to improve the efficiency of business processes and to develop standard expectations for manual labor (Reinhold, 1996, p. 21). "The purpose of Taylorism was to make workers interchangeable, able to do the simple tasks that the new division of labor required-like standard parts divested of individuality and humanity, bought and sold as commodities" (Zinn, 1980, p. 324). Wage slavery, as it was called, became a reality in the early part of the twentieth century when men, women, and children were forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions in order to make a living.

As a result of the long hours, low pay, and dangerous working conditions, employees began to unionize. …

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