Research reverses relationship between work stress and burnout

December 15, 2020

New research has examined the relationship between burnout and workplace stress. (Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash)

Job-related stress and work overload are often pointed to as major causes of burnout, but new research argues that the relationship is in fact reversed, and that it is actually existing burnout that can lead to increased feelings of stress in the workplace.

The research, published in the December issue of Psychological Bulletin, examined several existing longitudinal studies of burnout and work stress. It concluded that while job stressors and burnout mutually affect each other over time, the impact of burnout on how one perceives one’s work-related stressors is far greater than the effect of those stressors on the progression of burnout.

Christian Dormann, a professor at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and an author of the report, said that previous cross-sectional studies of burnout have concluded that a strong driving force of burnout was time pressure or workload at a person’s job. However, the longitudinal studies Dormann’s team examined showed that burnout was in actuality causing an increased perception of work pressure, creating a cyclical effect between the two that can lead to an increase in both issues.

“People suffering from burnout … perceive — or actually have, we do not really know —  more workload or more time pressure at work,” Dormann said. “It’s a chicken-egg problem, reversed. It’s not the time pressure that causes burnout, but rather the burnout that causes increased time pressure.”

Dormann said that many of his colleagues in the field did not consider the scenario of burnout causing increased work pressure to be a real possibility, and that it was “a fixed picture, that the stress at work or the workload causes burnout.”

“If you’re really exhausted, you don’t get your work done and the piles on your desk get bigger and bigger,” Dormann added. “So that’s what causes a more severe workload — if you don’t get it done, the pile of work looks taller to you.”

The team’s research and analysis further highlighted that while having a good sense of control over one’s workload, as well as a strong social support system at and outside work, can be an “effective vaccine” against developing burnout, the mechanism of how that support functions is different than previously thought, Dormann said.

“Formerly, people thought that if you had a lot of control and social support, workload would not have such a big impact on burnout,” Dormann said. “But it’s the other way around, as our studies have shown — if you have a lot of control at work, your burnout does not increase the perception of your workload.”

Working conditions that have shifted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures that have followed are also having a noticeable impact on levels of burnout, Dormann noted. 

While white-collar workers may even benefit from work arrangements during the pandemic, since they are often able to work from home and take a break when necessary in order to maintain work energy, blue collar workers are likely suffering more. Those who now have to work long shifts with masks on and alter their production schedules are more than likely suffering from a higher level of burnout, and accordingly from higher levels of job stress, Dormann said.

After lockdown measures lift, Dormann said the authors of this research will continue looking into the relationship between burnout and work stress, including trying to determine if a person suffering from burnout actually ends up with a higher workload, or if they just perceive their existing workload as being bigger than it really is.

As far as combating burnout, Dormann said that people should still try to maintain control over their working environment and establish a strong social support system, which will also help to lessen the impact of work stressors.

“It is as people always thought — giving more control to workers and being more supportive fights burnout, but the mechanism is a different one,” Dormann said. “We didn’t change history, we just explained it in a different way.”

The report, “Reciprocal effects between job stressors and burnout: A continuous time meta-analysis of longitudinal studies,” was published online on Oct. 29 and in the December issue of Psychological Bulletin. It was authored by Christina Guthier as part of her doctoral thesis at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz; Christian Dormann, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz; and Manuel Völkle, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

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