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Winter 1995

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 95 > Article

Plague in Today's Workplace
by David L. Hart

If one in five adults around the world suffered from the same disease, it would be worse than an epidemic or even a pandemic. More on the order of a plague.

Yet, on average, more than 20 percent of working adults suffer from the highest level of on-the-job burnout, according to research by Robert Golembiewski and his international team.

"If this were a physical disease, there wouldn't be a word for it," said Golembiewski, a University of Georgia research professor who specializes in public administration and organization management.

The worst levels of burnout appear in Japan, where nearly 60 percent of employees in three studies by Golembiewski and his colleagues fell into the highest category -- Phase VIII on an eight-phase scale.

Overall, in numerous studies including 40,000 individuals from several countries, more than 40 percent fell into the three most advanced phases of burnout. Even in the healthiest organization Golembiewski studied, 22 percent of employees reported being in the three highest phases.

"A little stress is good for people -- it can energize them and motivate them. Too much stress is not good for them. The question is 'Where is the point beyond which stress herniates rather than motivates?' " said Golembiewski, who has written more than 500 articles and 50 books and has received the top awards from the Academy of Management and the American Society for Public Administration for his work.

Golembiewski's phase model of burnout is an effort to identify that point. Social scientists generally agree on three components of burnout, which the phase model ranks in increasing order of harmfulness:

  • a high degree of "depersonalization," in which a person thinks of others as objects and keeps them at a distance;
  • a lack of personal accomplishment, exhibited by employees who report they are doing poorly and believe their jobs are not worth doing; and
  • high emotional exhaustion, which is shown by people who can no longer comfortably cope with the stressors they are experiencing.

"A lot of statistical work has established that those bundles of activities make sense to people all over the world," Golembiewski said. "People working in high-tech organizations respond similarly to those items, whether they are Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Poles or Russians."

Golembiewski uses a 25-question survey, the Maslach Burnout Inventory, to measure how a person is dealing with stress at work. The survey ranks a person as either high or low in each of the three components, for a total of eight phases. In Phase I, a person is low on all counts; in Phase VIII, the person is over the edge on all three scales.

So far, Golembiewski and his colleagues have compared burnout levels to more than 300 variables, and the results all point to the same conclusion: Among other things, a person's self-esteem, productivity, family relationships, mental health and physical health all suffer as burnout gets worse.

"We focused on 19 symptoms that went all the way from sweaty palms to heart pains," Golembiewski said of one study on physical health. "From relatively trivial manifestations to relatively serious ones, the pattern was the same." A person in Phase VIII has five to 15 times the physical health problems of the average American, whereas a person in Phase I has one-fifth the symptoms of that average American. And although the numbers may vary, the same pattern holds for other countries.

The results also reveal some trends about how often and how easily people move from one phase to another. For one, burnout tends to stick. If you're in Phase VIII, you're likely to stay there; for that matter, if you're in Phase I, you're likely to stay there, too.

On the other hand, once you slip out of Phase I, get ready for an accelerated trip to Phase VIII.

"The moral of that story is, keep everybody in Phase I as much as you can," Golembiewski said, "because once you go beyond Phase I, there's a very slippery slope."

A worker probably will not go through each of the eight phases in order, he said. In "chronic onset," a person gradually progresses to high levels of each component. In "acute onset," a person jumps suddenly to higher phases because of some trauma, perhaps a death in the family or layoffs at work.

The best an individual can usually do is inoculate himself against burnout. According to Golembiewski, meditation, big- muscle exercise, and hobbies are some ways to reduce stress. Withdrawing from work is another, less constructive, route to take.

The only sure-fire cure is never taking that first step toward depersonalization, which is easier said than done.

"Make sure that you're listening to people and people are talking to you," Golembiewski said. "That's a very simple thing to say, but it's a very important one from the point of view of our model. If you're in Phase I, that's how you avoid Phase II."

Even though Golembiewski has figured out what's causing so much burnout, he's up against well-entrenched opposition when it comes to reducing these "tragically high" levels.

That's because most organizations worldwide use the relatively standard bureaucratic management structure -- the very one which seems to cause burnout. That structure along with traditional supervisory practices combine to push people over the edge.

"Just think of Captain Queeg  [the paranoid captain in The Caine Mutiny] or somebody like him, and you've got a stereotype of the person who generates VIII-ism," he said. "The sad thing is most supervisors are trained to behave that way. On the other hand, if the organization is willing to modify its practices, there are very straightforward designs that reduce burnout."

Such changes could add up to big payoffs for companies and individual workers.

"One objective indicator that should get the eye of management is that employees in Phase VIII use much more medical insurance than those in Phase I," he said. "It's predictable from the findings on physical symptoms and mental health, but it also shows up in dollar costs."

Instead of changing the way they do business, managers and organizations often prefer to "immunize" their employees against burnout -- for example, with stress reduction workshops. However, it's often the wrong people who attend. Ideally, work teams should be going, but management generally sends individuals, and people in the most advanced phases of burnout seem unlikely to sign up.

"Most American executives are willing to pay lots of money for individual magic pills," he said. "If we could sell them something that would reduce stress in individuals, we'd be multibillionaires. What we tell them is something very simple: There is no such medicine. The medicine is to change your policies and procedures, especially at the supervisory level, and they often don't want to do that."

If organizations keep the same policies, they do so at their own risk. Employees don't want to stay in organizations that burn them out, but they may have few options.

"When the economy improves, and people feel that they are freer to move, we're going to have huge dislocations," Golembiewski said. "And if we don't have the opportunity for people to move, then there's a lot of social dynamite building in organizations."

Golembiewski's research paints an almost tangible picture of this explosive concept. It's not just a general feeling of being at the end of your rope. It's something specific, persistent, widespread and harmful.

"It's no wonder many people don't like their work, because we're saying 40 percent of them feel dumped on more or less regularly," he said. "Now as a society we either tolerate that, or we don't. I'm working on this because I don't think we can tolerate it in the long run."

It's not quite like the days when slaves built the pyramids at the business ends of the whip and lash, but organizations still have a long way to go, he said. It's going to take some strong medicine to get us all there.

"I can't give everybody a pill," he said. "I wish I had one. The indication is a lot of people need help, and so do their organizations."

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