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«vaNDaNa KoHLi Department of Sociology California State University Bakersfield JoNg CHoi Department of Social Work California State University ...»

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Correlates of Job Burnout

among Human Services Workers:

Implications for Workforce Retention

maDHavappaLLiL tHomaS

Department of Social Work

California State University Bakersfield

vaNDaNa KoHLi

Department of Sociology

California State University Bakersfield

JoNg CHoi

Department of Social Work

California State University Bakersfield

Job burnout has impacted workers and negatively transformed

the social agency and its clients. This study examined the correlates of job burnout among human service workers in a non-urban setting in Central California. Using a convenience sample, researchers collected responses from 288 participants on a 13 item burnout scale. Findings indicated that workers experienced moderate to high levels of job burnout. Several scale items, including caseload size, age, gender, education, and experience, were significantly correlated with burnout. In addition, regression analyses revealed that caseload size was the most significant predictor of job burnout among human service workers. Implications for workforce retention and policy practice are discussed.

Key words: burnout, human service workers, caseload size, workforce retention, policy, practice Job burnout rates have been steadily increasing among human service workers in response to their changing work landscape characterized by increasing caseloads, role Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, December 2014, Volume XLI, Number 4 70 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare ambiguities, declining wage rates, and limited opportunities for upward mobility, to name a few. Job burnout has been defined as and linked to lower rates of worker productivity, lack of job satisfaction, and attrition (Cahalane & Sites, 2008;

Kirk-Brown & Wallace, 2004; Koeske & Koeske, 1989). Certain socio-demographic factors, such as age, gender, and marital status, interact with work conditions differentially and are even thought to predispose certain individuals to experiencing job burnout (Angerer, 2003; Maslach, Shaufeli, & Leiter, 2001;

Sprang, Clark, & Whitt-Woosley, 2007).

Job burnout has been measured in terms of the physical and emotional exhaustion experienced by human service workers as the culmination of job-related stress over the duration of their employment (Rosenberg & Pace, 2006). In addition to person-specific characteristics, current research has pointed to the importance of conceptualizing job burnout as a selective and multidimensional process within an organizational culture that often neglects to promote healthy and supportive methods to cope with work-related stress (Gomez & Michaelis, 1995; Storey & Billingham, 2001). Conceptualizing job burnout as an organizational outcome shifts the action arenas for proper stress regulation away from the individual to the social support structure of an organization and the interaction of organizational features with individual-level variables (Anderson, 2000; Kirk-Brown & Wallace, 2004). Against this backdrop, this paper focuses on the burnout experienced by rural human service workers in the Central Valley of California, where there is a strong presence of socioeconomically-underrepresented minority populations, by exploring the socio-demographic and work-related variables that contribute to job burnout. In addition to identifying the correlates and predictive factors, the burnout measure in this study broadens the conceptual framework mostly from an emotional exhaustion and depersonalization perspective to include a person–environment interactive framework.

Literature Review Burnout has been empirically tested among human service workers in child protection agencies (Anderson, 2000;

Cahalane & Sites, 2008; Kim & Stoner, 2008; Poulin & Walter, Job Burnout Among Human Services Workers 71 1993; Schwartz, Tiamiyu, & Dwyer, 2007), among marriage and family therapists (Rosenberg & Pace, 2006), and social service volunteers (Kulik, 2006), in metropolitan cities (Angerer, 2003; Gomez & Michaelis, 1995; Jenaro, Flores, & Arias, 2007;

Sprang et al., 2007; Storey & Billingham, 2001), and in rural areas (Kee, Johnson, & Hunt, 2002; Landsman, 2002). Together, these studies indicate that job-related stress is a covariant of organizational structure, organizational supportive measures, and worker coping mechanisms. These studies find that social service workers who feel marginalized and disengaged from both their clients and the organization tend to be highly stressed. On the other hand, social service workers whose organizational structure promotes communication and provides some coping mechanisms tend to be less stressed and have greater rates of productivity.

The focus on individual–agency interactions has led researchers to look at organizational settings in rural and urban areas. Some studies have found that social service workers employed in rural areas are characterized by the same high rates of emotional exhaustion, compounded by low rates of individual achievement on a job burnout inventory scale, as their urban counterparts (Angerer, 2003; Gellis, Kim & Hwang, 2004; Poulin & Walter, 1993; Rohland, 2000). On the other hand, there is research suggesting that rural workers experience higher rates of job burnout compared to their urban counterparts. This association between rural workplace setting and worker burnout presumably stems from increased professional isolation, resource deficits, and environmental influences in rural areas compared to urban locales (Landsman, 2002). It deserves mention that the data for this research were collected from human service agencies in a relatively rural, non-urban setting for the purpose of developing a predictive model that isolates socio-demographic and work-related factors that contribute most to job burnout.

Burnout has often been examined as part of stress resulting from work. To many researchers, job burnout is a process that occurs as a result of continuous physical and emotional exhaustion. Oftentimes, it results in negative self-concept, negative job attitudes, and a loss of concern or feeling for clients (Rosenberg & Pace, 2006). The burnout process transforms not only the social agency, but also the client 72 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare (Anderson, 2000). According to Maslach et al. (2001), there are three dimensions of burnout, namely: exhaustion, depersonalization, and inefficacy. Exhaustion refers to the emotional pressure of the work environment, which often precludes the service provider’s capacity to interact with and address the needs of the client, whereas depersonalization is a conscious effort to create a degree of separation between oneself and the client by disregarding the characteristics that make them unique and engaging people. Similarly, inefficacy refers to a reduction in personal accomplishment from work-related activities, which leaves the worker with a sense of uselessness to the organization and client. Although there are several conceptualizations of job burnout, socio-demographic and work environment factors seem to provide an interactive framework for analyzing the literature on job burnout for the current study.

Socio-Demographic Factors Socio-demographic factors such as age, gender, marital status, and ethnicity have been linked to increasing job burnout rate. The demographic characteristic with the most significant impact on job burnout is age. Younger service workers reported a higher rate of burnout compared to workers over the age of 40 years (Maslach et al., 2001). Part of the age effect can be attributed to reduced stress levels as workers become more familiar with role expectations. For example, with increased age and length of tenure, role ambiguity did not impact role performance, indicating that more mature workers who are familiar with workload expectations are less likely to experience burnout compared to their younger counterparts (Acker, 2003;

Maslach & Jackson, 1981; Shirom, Toker, Berliner, & Shapira, 2008). Similarly, older workers report less absenteeism rates and a higher rate of job satisfaction in federal as well as social service agencies (Schwartz et al., 2007). However, some of the literature notes that older age and longer tenure are more likely to be associated with more burnout (Collings & Murray, 1996; Schulz, Greenley, & Brown, 1995).

The literature indicates that women social service providers overwhelmingly reported higher rates of job burnout, perhaps as a result of increased reports of exhaustion associated with “emotional labor” compared to men in the same line of work (Erickson & Ritter, 2001; Maslach et al., 2001; Sprang Job Burnout Among Human Services Workers 73 et al., 2007). Women have also reported higher levels of compassion fatigue, which is also a predictor of job burnout. For example, among mental health service providers in a rural setting, females were associated with higher levels of burnout as a result of compassion fatigue which they experienced at a higher rate compared to males (Sprang et al., 2007). Women tend to experience higher rates of worker frustration as well.

However, this rate is significantly reduced when structural workplace characteristics are controlled. In other words, gender, although a significant independent variable, also interacts in a statistically significant way with organizationallevel variables and other demographic variables such as age and length of tenure in predicting burnout (Houkes, Winants, & Twellaar, 2008; Lewandowski, 2003; Rupert & Kent, 2007;

Rupert, Pedja, & Holly, 2009; Shirom et al., 2008). In a similar vein, Kulik (2006) found that among unemployed volunteers in social service agencies, gender alone did not predict the likelihood of burnout, even though their study found gender differences in the employment status of these volunteers.

Some studies have shown that those within the helping professions who have higher levels of education are often charged with greater responsibilities. As a result, those with more years of education experienced higher levels of stress and burnout (Maslach et al., 2001; Schwartz et al., 2007). Again, there is some inconsistency in the literature regarding the influence of educational attainment on burnout. For example, Schulz et al. (1995) found that social service workers with more education had considerably greater autonomy at the workplace and hence, reported greater job satisfaction, compared to their less educated co-workers. Similarly, a study of social service employees in a non-urban setting found that more educated workers reported higher levels of job satisfaction than did those who had not completed a college degree (Barth, Lloyd, Christ, Chapman, & Dickinson, 2008). The inconsistent results may be attributable to a direct versus indirect effect of education on burnout (Schulz et al., 1995).

Workplace Environment Angerer (2003) reported that organizational structure of the workplace could contribute to employee job stress. Similarly, socio-emotional factors such as personal coping resources, 74 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare emotional exhaustion, and role ambiguity in the workplace have also been identified as factors related to job burnout.

Issues outside of the worker’s sphere of control, such as downsizing, mergers, and budget control measures, have an adverse effect on marriages and families, and ultimately lead to job burnout (Angerer, 2003; Maslach et al., 2001). Jenaro, Flores and Arias (2007) found that coping strategies may be understood as personal resources and are highly important tools in the amelioration and prevention of stress associated with job burnout. This finding is consistent with a study of Child Protective Services that stated the intensity of the job contributes to the syndrome of emotional exhaustion, especially when a lack of coping strategies are in place on behalf of the individual or organization (Anderson, 2000). However, Rosenberg and Pace (2006) speculated that overall, marriage and family therapists have low-to-moderate levels of stress related to job burnout depending on the work setting; private practitioners had less burnout compared to therapists who worked in a community agency.

Burnout research also points to the importance of role ambiguity as a significant predictor of emotional exhaustion and burnout (Kirk-Brown & Wallace, 2004). On the other hand, however, the organization’s cultural responses to workers who experience stress resulting from role ambiguity greatly influence the likelihood of an employee adopting positive coping strategies for lowering or controlling stress-related burnout.

Complete organizational acceptance of stress and stress-reducing methods is associated with lower rates of stress-related job burnout, whereas a rejection or suppression of stress coping methodology may result in lower productivity and inadequate services provided to the client.

Some researchers have focused their attention on the impact of caseload size. Koeske and Koeske (1989) found in their study on workload and burnout that, under certain conditions, demanding workloads were connected with employee burnout. These researchers argued that support within the organization between co-workers and their superior(s) could override the stress associated with a challenging workload, forestalling social worker burnout in a social service setting.

Furthermore, studies among Title IV-E educated individuals Job Burnout Among Human Services Workers 75 and public child welfare employees showed that after fulfilling their legal work commitment, some left their agency due to dissatisfaction with the job. These workers indicated that they perceived limited opportunities to utilize their skills and abilities, had minimal latitude to make their own judgment, and received little recognition for their efforts, especially when working with difficult caseloads (Cahalane & Sites, 2008).

Poulin and Walter (1993) also suggested that agency culture, client, and personal factors all contribute to burnout.

Furthermore, Gomez and Michaelis (1995) found that merely shifting paperwork duties to clerical staff could result in all of the following: decrease in stress levels, enhanced organizational effectiveness, increase in worker personal accomplishment, and, potentially, lower job burnout rates. Storey and Billingham (2001) also suggested that team building communication fostered support for the social worker from upper level staff, decreased stress levels, and promoted job satisfaction.

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