A striking work-related problem which continues to stimulate the interest of academics and practitioners alike is the rise in burnout among the working population. Burnout refers to a situation in which employees are emotionally exhausted (drained and lacking energy,) and depersonalised, that is, they have developed a cynical attitude towards their job and the people associated with it — customers or clients. The problem of burnout is reflected in workplaces around the world in the form of increased sick leave, absenteeism and turnover. These are often the mechanisms by which employees attempt to distance themselves from their employer in order to recuperate.

The pace of work has intensified and many employees are dealing with various demands on their job which place them at risk of developing burnout. Here are three of the most common and hindering job demands experienced by employees:

  • Role overload occurs when the demands of one’s work exceed the resources which are available to meet them. Therefore, individuals experiencing role overload have too much work to do and not enough time or resources to complete it.
  • Role conflict refers to the incompatibility of expectations and demands associated with the role. It can involve contradictory requirements, competing demands and inadequate resources.
  • Role ambiguity refers to the lack of specificity and predictability for one’s role and responsibilities. Individuals experiencing role ambiguity are often unclear of what their role consists of and how role performance is actually measured.

Across many research studies, these particular job demands have been shown to increase burnout.

With the constant rise in job demands fuelling burnout in the workplace, policy makers and academics have been searching for solutions. There are many individual level factors which can make employees especially prone to developing burnout such as their personality and levels of personal resilience. But the research suggests that burnout is most likely to be caused by factors within the control of the organisation itself.

Therefore, among many other useful individual strategies to alleviate burnout such as cognitive behavioural therapy, coaching and resilience training, to name a few, factors more directly related to the design of work may pay off to a greater extent by acting as a preventative rather than a treatment remedy.

One factor suggested to be useful for ameliorating burnout is an organisation’s human resource (HR) practices. In our study we set out to establish whether a set of high-involvement HR practices could reduce the aforementioned job demands (role conflict, role overload and role ambiguity) and in turn lower employee levels of burnout.

We tested this possibility among a random sample of 545 health care workers in a Canadian hospital. Health care workers are regularly exposed to such demands and are believed to be a population especially prone to developing burnout. High-involvement HR practices include:

  • Increasing empowerment: ensuring that employees feel that they can decide how they go about their work.
  • Information sharing: ensuring employees are adequately informed about what’s going on in the organisation and that they themselves have input into decision making.
  • Non-monetary recognition: ensuring that the exceptional contributions of employees are formally recognised by the organisation.
  • Training and developing: ensuring that employees have the resources needed to improve their skills.

Our results show that when employees perceive that they are provided with all four high- involvement HR practices, they directly experience lower levels of burnout. Interestingly, these practices do not only directly reduce burnout. Indeed, they also reduce the job demands employees face (role overload and role conflict) which in turn leads to lower levels of burnout.

The findings provide organisations with a tool to reduce the job demands and burnout experienced by employees and at the same time provides them with insights into how their HR system can work. Overall high-involvement HR practices constitute a valuable resource, which are valued by employees. Specifically, they help them deal with their workload by providing them with greater skills, control and discretion when responding to tasks and by equipping them to work smarter on the job.

In addition, such practices have the potential to communicate important and consistent messages, which enables employees to overcome ambiguous and conflicting expectations emanating from their role.

It is well known that burnout prevents employees from performing their best on the job and accounts for high levels of absenteeism and turnover among many other important outcomes for organisations. Therefore, implementing high involvement-HR practices might be a valuable and relatively inexpensive tool for organisations to help their employees cope in a work context where excessive job demands are unlikely to dissipate any time soon.

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Steven Kilroy is an Assistant Professor of Human Resource Studies at the Department of Human Resource Studies in the School of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Tilburg University, The Netherlands. He has worked at Queens University and Dublin City University and was a visiting scholar at HEC Montreal and the University of Melbourne. His primary research interests are in the HR and occupational health psychology area and largely focus on the impact of high performance work practices on employee well-being and performance. His work appears in a number of academic journals. Email: S.C.Kilroy@uvt.nl

Patrick Flood is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Co-Director of the Leadership and Talent Institute at Dublin City University. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and is a former British Council, Fulbright, EU HUMCAP and Local Authority scholar. His work appears in several academic journals on the topics of leadership, change, and the impact of HRM on performance. He has worked at London Business School, University of Maryland, Capital University of Economics, Beijing, North Eastern University, PRC, and the University of Limerick. He is also an Erskine fellow at the University of Canterbury. Email: Patrick.Flood@dcu.ie

Janine Bosak is an Associate Professor in Organizational Psychology and Director of Research of the Leadership and Talent Institute at Dublin City University. Her research focuses on the areas of well-being in organizations and women and leadership and has attracted numerous awards, including the National Young Scientist Research Award, a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Science Foundation (ESF), and an Emerald/IACMR Award. Her work has been published in many journals. Email: Janine.Bosak@dcu.ie

Denis Chênevert is a Professor at the Department of Human Resources Management in HEC Montreal, where he teaches human resources management strategy. He received the prize for the best teaching book in 2009 at HEC Montreal and the Highly Commended Paper Award in 2013 in the Journal of Health Organization and Management. His most recent research projects explored the links between work climate, organisational citizenship behaviours, absenteeism, and individual welfare in the health care sector. He has published in several academic journals. Email: Denis.Chenevert@hec.ca.