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Respect goes a long way toward preventing burnout, study finds

August 1, 2006

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

The image of workers suffering burnout in difficult human-service jobs, like nursing or social work, may have a strong hold on the popular imagination -- but in some ways the image is distorted, according to a new study.

To be presented at the Academy of Management's annual meeting in Atlanta (Aug. 13-16), the study concludes that, while popular belief tends to view the demands of the jobs as engendering burnout, the cause is more liable to be an environment of disrespect in the workplace.

It fact, it is quite likely that, the more demanding such jobs are, the less chance of burnout, according to the new research.

In the words of the study's authors, Lakshmi Ramarajan and Sigal Barsade of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and Orah Burack of New York City's Jewish Home and Hospital Lifecare System, "The results show that perceptions of organizational disrespect can have a strong effect on emotional exhaustion over time -- above and beyond the more traditionally studied variables, such as job demands or personality factors."

They add pointedly: "Human service jobs may indeed be tough, but...[i]t seems that treating employees with respect and dignity may go a long way in making even the hardest jobs less tough."

The findings emerge from a survey of 108 certified nursing assistants -- 82% of them female and 88% with more than a high school education -- on the staff of 13 different units of a long-term care facility. The participants' average tenure with the organization was about 10 years.

At stage one of the survey, in June 2004, participants were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, the accuracy of four statements about the importance the organization assigned to respect and dignity: 1) "staff members respect each other"; 2) "staff members are treated with dignity"; 3) "cultural diversity of the staff is valued"; and 4) "staff members are encouraged to be creative when solving problems." At the same time, staffers were asked to respond to items that revealed the demands of their jobs, the amount of job autonomy they enjoyed, and the nature of their personal dispositions -- their tendency to feel irritable, upset, nervous, afraid, and guilty.

Nine months later, in March 2005, the participants were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, the accuracy of four statements related to emotional burnout: 1) "I feel emotionally drained from my work"; 2) "I feel used up at the end of the workday"; 3) "I feel fatigued when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job"; and 4) "I feel burned out from my work."

The researchers found emotional exhaustion at stage two to be significantly related to an individual's personality at stage one and found it to be marginally influenced in a negative direction by job demands at stage one (in other words, the more demands the less exhaustion). They also found that a higher degree of organizational disrespect at stage one translated into more emotional exhaustion at stage two and that disrespect made a particularly big difference in this regard among workers with low autonomy.

Not only does respect make for significantly less emotional exhaustion for employees, but, the authors believe, it fosters improved care as well. "[D]isrespectful organizations," they note, "can be left full of neglected and neglectful individuals who have figured out how to cope or survive in the organization by mentally turning over, while those with better job alternatives, or more commitment to their profession than the organization, end up leaving."

In contrast they cite a comment of a nursing assistant in a high-respect unit: "[This] is a wonderful floor to work on. We work as a team. Our supervisor is great with us. We are treated with respect, we love our residents, and I think we all do a good job working with them."

The paper, entitled "What Makes the Job Tough? The Influence of Organizational Respect on Burnout in the Human Services," will be among thousands of studies presented at the Academy of Management meeting in Atlanta . Marking its 70th anniversary this year, the academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has close to 17,000 members in 90 countries, including some 10,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw about 7,000 scholars and practitioners to Atlanta for nearly 1,500 sessions on a host of subjects relating to corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Business-oriented academics ready to weigh weighty issues. (Saturday, August 12, 2006).
The Globe & Mail. New study sheds light on preventing burnout. (Friday, August 11, 2006).

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