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Investigating the temporal relationship between proactive burnout prevention and burnout

How feasible is it for an employee to proactively prevent or recover from burnout?

Is this a pigeon meme
Is this Burnout Paradise?

Work has a tiring effect on most people, but for some it does more than just that. Burnout refers to a work-related state of exhaustion, in which someone suffers from extreme tiredness, cognitive and emotional impairment, and mental distancing.

Why it matters

Not only are burnouts bad for you and everyone else around you, they’re also hard to recover from. Since prevention is better than cure, many employers have initiated burnout prevention programmes.

Studies have shown that these programmes have a lasting effect, but unfortunately it is also quite small. A possibly explanation for the limited effectiveness of employer-initiated programmes is that non-work factors also play a role in the development of burnout. It is therefore essential that employees take action as well to prevent burnout.

Burnout prevention

The table below lists proactive actions that employees can take to prevent burnout, along with some examples.

Domain Proactive action Examples
Work Increasing/maintaining job control I make sure that I am in control of when I carry out my work
Increasing/maintaining supervisor social support I ask my supervisor for support, if necessary
Increasing/maintaining coworker social support I ask my co‐workers to take over work from me, if necessary
Seeking feedback I seek feedback from my supervisor about my work performance
Seeking/performing tasks that energize I actively take on tasks that enable me to develop myself further
Reducing hindering job demands I make sure that I do not have to carry out tasks that cost too much energy
Home Increasing/maintaining home autonomy I make sure that I am in control of how I spend my free time
Increasing/maintaining home social support I ask my family/friends for help, if necessary
Reducing work‐home conflict I make sure that I distance myself from work after hours
Personal Improving/maintaining physical health I make sure that I get enough exercise
Improving/maintaining psychological wellbeing I try to put stressful situations into perspective
Engaging in relaxing activities I make sure that I take time for relaxing activities after work

Conservation of resources

We know that self-initiated actions can be effective, but probably only up to a certain point.

According to the conservation of resources (COR) theory humans are motivated to maintain their current resources and gain new ones. When they are threatened with the loss of a resource, this creates psychological stress. Humans will then try to invest resources in order to improve their situation, e.g. prevent burnout.

This works well in theory, unless you already have a burnout: employees who suffer from burnout may no longer have the resources they need to get back to track and therefore become stuck in a cycle that continuously increases their suffering.

Little is known about how burnout and burnout prevention impact each other over time.

How the study was conducted

This study uses a so-called four-wave “shortitudinal” panel design.

What that means is that the researchers studied the effects of burnout and burnout prevention over multiple relatively short time periods ().

The participants in the panel were all employees at the Dutch branch of an organisation in the financial services industry. About 61% of participants had a university degree.

What discoveries were made

The findings provide empirical evidence for COR theory: they suggest that proactive burnout prevention results in lower levels of burnout and that those who already suffer from burnout take less actions to prevent burnout. This means that as an employee you should take action to prevent burnout before it becomes too late to remedy your situation.

However, . Resource-rich employees do not tend to gain more resources over time, while resource-poor (i.e. burnt out) employees do not become more burnt out at a higher rate over time.

Summary

  1. Proactive burnout prevention results in lower levels of burnout

  2. Burnout results in less proactive burnout prevention behaviour in the future

  3. Burnout does not seem to worsen exponentially over time