Wednesday, 16 February 2011 18:23

Stress and Burnout and their Implication in the Work Environment

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“An emerging global economy mandates serious scientific attention to discoveries that foster enhanced human productivity in an ever-changing and technologically sophisticated work world” (Human Capital Initiative 1992). Economic, social, psychological, demographic, political and ecological changes around the world are forcing us to reassess the concept of work, stress and burnout on the workforce.

Productive work “calls for a primary focus on reality external to one self. Work therefore emphasizes the rational aspects of people and problem solving” (Lowman 1993). The affective and mood side of work is becoming an ever-increasing concern as the work environment becomes more complex.

A conflict that may arise between the individual and the world of work is that a transition is called for, for the beginning worker, from the self-centredness of adolescence to the disciplined subordination of personal needs to the demands of the workplace. Many workers need to learn and adapt to the reality that personal feelings and values are often of little importance or relevance to the workplace.

In order to continue a discussion of work-related stress, one needs to define the term, which has been used widely and with varying meanings in the behavioural science literature. Stress involves an interaction between a person and the work environment. Something happens in the work arena which presents the individual with a demand, constraint, request or opportunity for behaviour and consequent response. “There is a potential for stress when an environmental situation is perceived as presenting a demand which threatens to exceed the person’s capabilities and resources for meeting it, under conditions where he/she expects a substantial differential in the rewards and costs from meeting the demand versus not meeting it” (McGrath 1976).

It is appropriate to state that the degree to which the demand exceeds the perceived expectation and the degree of differential rewards expected from meeting or not meeting that demand reflect the amount of stress that the person experiences. McGrath further suggests that stress may present itself in the following ways: “Cognitive-appraisal wherein subjectively experienced stress is contingent upon the person’s perception of the situation. In this category the emotional, physiological and behavioural responses are significantly influenced by the person’s interpretation of the ‘objective’ or external stress situation.”

Another component of stress is the individual’s past experience with a similar situation and his or her empirical response. Along with this is the reinforcement factor, whether positive or negative, successes or failures which can operate to reduce or enhance, respectively, levels of subjectively experienced stress.

Burnout is a form of stress. It is a process defined as a feeling of progressive deterioration and exhaustion and an eventual depletion of energy. It is also often accompanied by a loss of motivation, a feeling that suggests “enough, no more”. It is an overload that tends during the course of time to affect attitudes, mood and general behaviour (Freudenberger 1975; Freudenberger and Richelson 1981). The process is subtle; it develops slowly and sometimes occurs in stages. It is often not perceived by the person most affected, since he or she is the last individual to believe that the process is taking place.

The symptoms of burnout manifest themselves on a physical level as ill-defined psychosomatic complaints, sleep disturbances, excessive fatigue, gastrointestinal symptoms, backaches, headaches, various skin conditions or vague cardiac pains of an unexplained origin (Freudenberger and North 1986).

Mental and behavioural changes are more subtle. “Burnout is often manifest by a quickness to be irritated, sexual problems (e.g. impotence or frigidity), fault finding, anger and low frustration threshold” (Freudenberger 1984a).

Further affective and mood signs may be progressive detachment, loss of self-confidence and lowered self-esteem, depression, mood swings, an inability to concentrate or pay attention, an increased cynicism and pessimism, as well as a general sense of futility. Over a period of time the contented person becomes angry, the responsive person becomes silent and withdrawn and the optimist becomes a pessimist.

The affect feelings that appear to be most common are anxiety and depression. The anxiety most typically associated with work is performance anxiety. The forms of work conditions that are relevant in promoting this form of anxiety are role ambiguity and role overload (Srivastava 1989).

Wilke (1977) has indicated that “one area that presents particular opportunity for conflict for the personality-disordered individual concerns the hierarchical nature of work organizations. The source of such difficulties can rest with the individual, the organization, or some interactive combination.”

Depressive features are frequently found as part of the presenting symptoms of work-related difficulties. Estimates from epidemiological data suggest that depression affects 8 to 12% of men and 20 to 25% of women. The life expectancy experience of serious depressive reactions virtually assures that workplace issues for many people will be affected at some time by depression (Charney and Weissman 1988).

The seriousness of these observations was validated by a study conducted by Northwestern National Life Insurance Company—“Employee Burnout: America’s Newest Epidemic” (1991). It was conducted among 600 workers nationwide and identified the extent, causes, costs and solutions related to workplace stress. The most striking research findings were that one in three Americans seriously thought about quitting work in 1990 because of job stress, and a similar portion expected to experience job burnout in the future. Nearly half of the 600 respondents experienced stress levels as “extremely or very high.” Workplace changes such as cutting employee benefits, change of ownership, required frequent overtime or reduced workforce tend to speed up job stress.

MacLean (1986) further elaborates on job stressors as uncomfortable or unsafe working conditions, quantitative and qualitative overload, lack of control over the work process and work rate, as well as monotony and boredom.

Additionally, employers are reporting an ever-increasing number of employees with alcohol and drug abuse problems (Freudenberger 1984b). Divorce or other marital problems are frequently reported as employee stressors, as are long-term or acute stressors such as caring for an elderly or disabled relative.

Assessment and classification to diminish the possibility of burnout may be approached from the points of view related to vocational interests, vocational choices or preferences and characteristics of people with different preferences (Holland 1973). One might utilize computer-based vocational guidance systems, or occupational simulation kits (Krumboltz 1971).

Biochemical factors influence personality, and the effects of their balance or imbalance on mood and behaviour are found in the personality changes attendant on menstruation. In the last 25 years a great deal of work has been done on the adrenal catecholamines, epinephrine and norepinephrine and other biogenic amines. These compounds have been related to the experiencing of fear, anger and depression (Barchas et al. 1971).

The most commonly used psychological assessment devices are:

    • Eysenck Personality Inventory and Mardsley Personality Inventory
    • Gordon Personal Profile
    • IPAT Anxiety Scale Questionnaire
    • Study of Values
    • Holland Vocational Preference Inventory
    • Minnesota Vocational Interest Test
    • Rorschach Inkblot Test
    • Thematic Apperception Test


                  A discussion of burnout would not be complete without a brief overview of the changing family-work system. Shellenberger, Hoffman and Gerson (1994) indicated that “Families are struggling to survive in an increasingly complex and bewildering world. With more choices than they can consider, people are struggling to find the right balance between work, play, love and family responsibility.”

                  Concomitantly, women’s work roles are expanding, and over 90% of women in the US cite work as a source of identity and self-worth. In addition to the shifting roles of men and women, the preservation of two incomes sometimes requires changes in living arrangements, including moving for a job, long-distance commuting or establishing separate residences. All of these factors can put a great strain on a relationship and on work.

                  Solutions to offer to diminish burnout and stress on an individual level are:

                    • Learn to balance your life.
                    • Share your thoughts and communicate your concerns.
                    • Limit alcohol intake.
                    • Re-evaluate personal attitudes.
                    • Learn to set priorities.
                    • Develop interests outside of work.
                    • Do volunteer work.
                    • Re-evaluate your need for perfectionism.
                    • Learn to delegate and ask for assistance.
                    • Take time off.
                    • Exercise, and eat nutritional meals.
                    • Learn to take yourself less seriously.


                                          On a larger scale, it is imperative that government and corporations accommodate to family needs. To reduce or diminish stress in the family-work system will require a significant reconfiguration of the entire structure of work and family life. “A more equitable arrangement in gender relationships and the possible sequencing of work and non-work over the life span with parental leaves of absence and sabbaticals from work becoming common occurrences” (Shellenberger, Hoffman and Gerson 1994).

                                          As indicated by Entin (1994), increased differentiation of self, whether in a family or corporation, has important ramifications in reducing stress, anxiety and burnout.

                                          Individuals need to be more in control of their own lives and take responsibility for their actions; and both individuals and corporations need to re-examine their value systems. Dramatic shifts need to take place. If we do not heed the statistics, then most assuredly burnout and stress will continue to remain the significant problem it has become for all society.



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