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Employee Burnout Is Very Real

Published: September 15, 2014

Employee burnout deserves more attention than it gets, according to Lori Brown, author (with Northwestern’s Michel Roloff) of “Extra-Role Time, Burnout, and Commitment: The Power of Promises Kept” which was published in the Business and Professional Communication Quarterly.

Burnout is a systematic wearing out of the individual from the pressures of work, said Brown, a member of CSULB’s Information Systems Department in the College of Business Administration. There are three components—physical and mental exhaustion, then depersonalization, and, finally, a feeling of decreased accomplishment.

In addition, Brown had an article (also with Roloff) related to the topic of burnout accepted for the journal Communication Quarterly. The article is titled “Organizational Citizenship Behavior, Organizational Communication and Burnout: The Buffering Role of Perceived Organizational Support and Psychological Contracts.” She will be presenting the paper to the National Communication Association in Chicago in November.

“People who are vulnerable to burnout often feel the need to make a difference in the world which is why one of the key phrases we found in the burnout research was ‘giving their all,’” she said, noting they often commit more hours than required to their work. “What happens when people who want to make a difference feel their commitment is not respected and that promises have not been kept? That is when these people begin to feel less and less committed to what they do.”

The risks of burnout vary according to profession. When Brown looked at educators, she focused on a national sample of more than 450 high school teachers who doubled as coaches.

“That demonstrates what we call organizational citizenship behavior,” she explained. “For instance, one might expect a coach to go to tournaments. But the time they spend there may exceed what is expected by such an extent that it becomes voluntary in all but name. Our data set counted more than 800 hours for coaching a debate team but compensations ranged from $500 to $2,000. That works out to between 60 cents to $2 an hour. It seems to be volunteering the extra time. What does that do in relation to burnout?”

Could burnout be so profound that the best employees lose their commitment? Their research looked at the extra hours and how they related to losing commitment to a profession which includes the potential to leave it altogether.

“We found that extra hours correlated to a lower commitment if they got burned out,” she said. “But we also found that, if you put in extra hours and do not become burned out, you may not lose your commitment. If burnout can be attenuated, then we can keep people committed.”

Keeping promises are fundamental to fighting burnout, whether an individual enters into an implied or overt agreement.

“You form a psychological contract,” she said. “Coaches took on their roles with the understanding that certain things would be offered to them, either psychologically or tangibly. Did the keeping of those promises make a difference to burnout and loss of commitment? It did. But once burnout has happened, nothing stops the cascade of events that follow. The keeping of promises in the psychological contract is key.”

What is close to keeping promises is perceived organizational support or when employees feel an overall sense from their organizations that they are valued and cared about.

Lori Brown

“If you were ill and had to call in sick, do you feel that your organization cares?” she asked. “What if your employer’s response is ‘Oh no! Are you kidding me?’ Perceived organizational support attenuates burnout. Those who commit more work time may seem more likely to burn out, but the more support they receive, the less likely is burnout.”

What Brown finds especially interesting about perceived organizational support is that it is free. Its expenditure is only the effort it takes to communicate care and value to employees.

“Some organizations spend so much money to motivate their employees that people work an inordinate amount of hours to get a pin or an award,” said Brown, who received her B.A. from CSULB, and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Northwestern University. “Employees would rather feel valued and cared about. I call it ‘the niceness principle.’ Valuing what they do seems to be what above-and-beyond employees look for. There has to be some reason for their commitment beyond financial gain.”

Having enough hours in the day proved essential to beating burnout because when an individual gives up time, they give up time with their family, sleep and other free-time activities.

“There are many kinds of resources that become depleted,” she said. “You don’t have to receive more hours of sleep or spend more time with your family if you can find a replacement resource. Will perceived support and the keeping of promises substitute for time given up? My research says they will.”

Communication also attenuates burnout. “The theory of social information processing supposes that we all can alter attitudes based on the communication environment we live in,” she said. “Messages being sent by random office conversations to messages sent from the top of the organization which can be indirect and non-verbal can communicate a feeling of support or lack thereof. Social information processing is very important.”

Brown feels employee burnout deserves a higher priority on the national agenda and the emphasis needs to be on prevention.

“There have been steps toward physical wellness for employees,” she said. “Though important, these steps can be expensive. Physical wellness has become a new priority with newsletters and incentives dedicated to the topic. Burnout is less tangible. You cannot get it checked like cholesterol. Burnout is gradual but insidious and is something employers need to look at carefully. A positive, pro-active approach to making employees feel valued is critical.”