Job Burnout In a recent study, Professor Benjamin Dunford evaluated emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment as the three indicators or phases of employee burnout. (Photo by iStock)

Keeping the Flame

Employee burnout more prevalent among newcomers, internal job changers

Burnout — the word evokes a feeling of deflation. A dwindling fire, tires skidded to a stop. For many in the workplace, it’s a familiar feeling.

“Burnout is what employees come across when their demands outpace their resources,” says Professor Benjamin Dunford. “It’s when you feel emotionally tired.”

Job burnout emerged as an important concept in the 1970s. Though emotional exhaustion is considered its flagship dimension, burnout is also studied in an additional two dimensions: depersonalization, when an employee places psychological distance between him or herself and others; and reduced personal accomplishment, where an employee experiences feelings of diminished self-efficacy.

Traditionally, research on burnout has examined static levels of burnout, meaning there haven’t been many studies conducted on how large groups of individuals’ attitudes in the workplace change over time.

Thanks to a longstanding relationship with the CEO of a private health care organization in South Carolina, and support from Purdue’s Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering, Dunford had the opportunity to study individual data over a span of years — something he described as a “once-in-a-career event.”

The study, now published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, looked at a broad sample of 2,089 health care employees, using five measurement points over a two-year time period. Checking in with the sample every six months, the study captured different phases of both career transitions and burnout indicators.

The three employee transition phases Dunford looked at were organizational newcomers, internal job changers (promotions or lateral moves) and organizational insiders (those with at least one year of experience within the company who did not change jobs throughout the course of the study). Emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment were evaluated as the three indicators or phases of burnout.

The study found that burnout was more likely to occur among organizational newcomers and internal job changers and less likely to occur among organizational insiders.

“Organizational insiders experience the least burnout because they’re more socialized in the organization already,” Dunford says. “There’s less of a learning curve, whereas an outsider that’s just been hired has everything to learn.”

Dunford says that within the first 10- to 12-month period after an employee is hired, a “socialize or leave” pattern develops. An employee is either able to deal with the workplace demands based on the resources at their disposal, or leaves — a problem Dunford has helped to address through his research.

Using the results of Dunford’s study, the private health care organization reduced turnover from 20 percent to 7 percent in the first year, improved return on equity, boosted return on assets and significantly improved patient satisfaction over a long time period.

“The CEO of the organization recognized how critical employee engagement was to both clinical and financial outcomes,” Dunford says. “It’s the organizational and the people issues that are driving a lot of these problems downstream.”