Friday, 14 January 2005 - 8:00 AM

This presentation is part of: Occupational Stress in Social Work

Personal and Occupational Factors in Burnout among Practicing Social Workers

Darcy Clay Siebert, PhD, Florida State University School of Social Work.

Purpose: Burnout has been a popular target of study since the 1970’s, and the feelings of fatigue and disengagement that are descriptive of burnout frequently resonate with caregiving professionals. Theory evolved after the development of the standard measure, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), but the term "burnout" remains conceptually unclear. Studies of burnout are commonplace in the literature, but results are often inconsistent and researchers typically utilize convenience samples, focusing only on features of the workplace that contribute to burnout. This analysis expands the discussion and improves the conceptual clarity of burnout by including personal characteristics and personal history variables, utilizing rigorous measures, and collecting data from a representative sample.

Methods: This paper will report findings from Work and Well Being, a study that explored health, work, and personal variables by anonymously surveying a probability sample of 1000 practicing NASW members. Burnout was measured using a refined version of the emotional exhaustion subscale of the MBI (alpha=.92), as it is recognized as the central quality of burnout and is frequently used as the sole measure. A single-item self-report burnout measure that allowed respondents to report past problems with burnout was included, as were categories of independent variables including demographics, personal history of trauma, personal characteristics, workload, work experience, workplace resources, work stress, and career.

Results: The study attained a 75% usable response rate and the sample was demographically comparable to the national population of NASW members. The findings included a current burnout rate of 39% and a lifetime rate of 75%. Hierarchical regression analyses found that occupational variables mentioned in previous literature – e.g., hours worked per week (β=.08), working with stressful clients (β=.18), supportive supervision (β=-.14), and stressful environment (β=.35) – were related to burnout. However, other findings point to the need to expand traditional thinking. Personal variables were also associated with burnout, and these included having a troubled parent (β=.08) and having experienced emotional abuse (β=.09) as a child, having difficulty asking for help (β=.10), and feeling overly responsible for clients (β=.11). Together the independent variables explained 45% of burnout’s variance.

Implications for practice: The high rates of burnout and the variety of related factors in this representative sample demonstrate that burnout needs to be a focus of attention rather than merely a topic of casual conversation or the target of study of convenience samples of professionals. If social work researchers, practitioners, managers, and educators all begin to take burnout seriously, addressing it actively rather than just accepting it as ubiquitous but impervious to intervention, they could likely improve both the lives of these professionals and the quality of the services they provide. Social workers must become more informed about burnout’s related personal and occupational variables so that they can more effectively prevent or address it as needed. Although the literature typically suggests personal stress-reduction techniques for workers experiencing burnout, social work practitioners and managers should also engage in informed advocacy efforts to change the features of the workplace that may be contributing to burnout in themselves and their colleagues.

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