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Organizational factors contributing to worker frustration: the precursor to burnout

Cathleen Lewandowski

"Burnout is defined as a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job (Maslach 1993; Maslach,, 2000). While initial research was conducted in the social service arena, current research indicates that significant proportions of the population, from factory workers to surgeons, have advanced stages of burnout (Golembiewski, Boudreau, Sun & Luc 1998). Self-reporting of burnout is most often labeled as feelings of frustration (Keenan & Newton 1984). Symptoms experienced by individuals range from mild frustration, anxiety and depression to more severe emotional reactions often described as emotional exhaustion, or the draining of emotional resources (Daily 1970; Koocher, 1979). Other symptoms include a feeling of depersonalization, described as the development of negative, cynical attitudes towards the recipients of one's service (Maslach 1993; Maslach,, 2000; Schaufali & Burenk 1996), sense of helplessness, progressive apathy, colds and illness in times of stress, becoming angry with clients and coworkers, feeling of immobilization and being pressured, overzealous relief at the end of the day, disillusionment with field of work, increased alcohol or drug use, and work related dreams with anxiety and guilt (Koocher, 1979; Lewis 1980; Lee & Ashforth 1990; Renjilan, Baum & Landry 1998).

Organizational factors identified as contributing to burnout include multiple sponsorship of social work agencies, increased regulation, role conflict, downsizing, and role ambiguity. These organizational factors are of particular concern in the current practice climate of increased privatization (Lewandowski, 1998; Rosenthal, 2000) managed care (Crotty, 1999; U.S. GAO, 1998), and the projected budget problems currently being experienced in governments across the country (Eaton, 2002). Role conflict and ambiguity, that is, lack of clarity as to what is expected, appropriate, or effective behavior, may be brought about by lack of communication about job expectation and roles, conflict with coworkers or supervisors (Decker & Borgen. 1993; Siefert, Jayaratne, Davis-Sacks, & Chess, 1991; and Snapp 1992), differences between organizational policy and expectations and individual expectations of fairness and equity (Spence, Leschinger, Finegan & Shamian 2001), or value conflict with social work or personal values (Harrison 1980).

Inadequate communication and unrealistic expectations result in staff overload (Ray 1991) and feelings of isolation (Riordan & Saltzer 1992). Social service workers can also become frustrated when more time is spent on paperwork than with clients (Gomez 1995). While pay does not appear to be the motivating factor to work, workers often seek the intrinsic value of the opportunity to help or to have a sense of purpose (Blandertz & Robinson 1997). To further emphasize the impact of the work environment, studies have shown that burnout may be caught from co-workers or supervisors on the job through negative communication (Bakker & Schaufeli 2000; Geurtz, Schaufeli & De Jonge 1998; Mirvis, Graney, & Kilpatrick 1999).

Both age and gender have been associated with workplace frustration and burnout. However, inadequate skills and lack of experience may explain the age differences in levels of burnout, as younger workers are more likely to be inexperienced (Koeske & Kirk, 1995; Rowe 2000). Female workers compose a large percentage of the person-centered working population and may present their own particular problems. Women are often "other focused" and may have difficulty asking for help and support and in communicating their own needs (Davidson & Forester 1995; Gilligan 1982).

To summarize, sources of workplace frustration leading to burnout may originate within the organization, though individual characteristics can contribute to one's ability to cope with high stress work environments. Role conflict and ambiguity, value conflicts, feelings of isolation, and working with high stress clients or in high stress fields of practice are some of the key organizational factors identified in the literature as contributing to burnout. In terms of individual characteristics, younger workers and women tend to be more vulnerable to burnout than older workers and men."


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Lewandowski, C. (2003) Organizational factors contributing to worker frustration: the precursor to burnout. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, December, 2003.

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