The New Approach: 3 Burnout Profiles

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For now, the best tool in combatting burnout seems to be purely diagnostic. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is in wide use, measuring the symptoms common in burnout – exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.  This measure is based upon the hypothesis that burnout occurs in distinct stages, namely a continuum beginning with cynicism, escalating to inefficacy, and hitting the wall with exhaustion.  A high score on the MBI would indicate a more advanced case of burnout and therefore the necessity of more comprehensive holistic treatment measures.

A recent study by Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach (“Latent burnout profiles: A new approach to understanding burnout experience”) for Australia’s journal, Burnout Research, asks the overlooked question: what if a respondent scores high on one aspect (or “stage”) of burnout and not on the others? The MBI would arrive at a passable score once the numbers were crunched and identifying a strong warning sign would be a missed opportunity.  The Australian researchers sought to take a different approach, identifying subjects who scored particularly high on one criteria but not on the other two.  They were able then to create profiles of three distinct groups, opening a new window into both identifying burnout earlier and in targeting treatment to meet the needs of the individual.  Here are the three burnout profiles they identified:

1. Overextended

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The overextended profile is characterized by exhaustion.  Previous stage-based models posited that exhaustion is a final and dire indicator of full-blown burnout.  Instead, researchers identified a distinct group who suffered only from exhaustion, without the other hallmarks of burnout.  In these cases, workload was the primary impetus.  The implications of this are many-fold and give rise to several new insights into the origins of burnout.  For instance, one might suggest that reducing heavy workloads could nip burnout in the bud.  –And even that overload will almost inevitably lead to burnout, explaining it’s presence as a common aspect of the problem on an individual level.

2. Disengaged

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Disengaged burnout profiles have a high level of cynicism, a symptom previously suggested as either the first or second stage of burnout.  The disengaged worker feels isolated in the workplace and uses defensive measures to either mask or cope with this lack of community.  High levels of dissatisfaction with the efficacy and personal experience within team constructs are key indicators of this profile.  Social aspects of work life are likewise uncomfortable.  While the workload is problematic in the overextended profile, the issue to address in this case is one of workplace culture.  The primary questions to ask in combatting this development is whether you’ve hired someone who does not fit with your existing staff or if you have more comprehensive organizational challenges.

3. Ineffective

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The ineffective profile is characterized by strong feelings of inadequacy and failure.  This self-perception will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as a lack of confidence plays out in a hesitant lack of efficiency.  As with all the profiles, an ineffective profile may occur at any stage of burnout but, standing alone, is an early indicator of the patterns so often seen.  According to the study, the ineffective worker suffers from “reduced productivity or capability, low morale, and an inability to cope.”  Burnout has long been known to sever a worker’s sense of connection to the work they perform.  In this profile, an accompanying lack of identity as performance suffers may be the underlying culprit.

Not entirely clear is the interplay between the previously accepted stage-of-burnout approach and this alternative view of distinct burnout profiles.  The inadequate understanding of what treatment or interventions prove effective for burnout may be considerably bolstered by this insight.  Certainly the MBI remains an indispensable tool in diagnosing burnout.  This recent study indicates, however, that early interventions could be better targeted by learning from the unexamined outliers’ more directed symptoms.  Treatment approaches using these profiles as a basis could better target individual approaches and could be applied to preventative measures with more efficacy than stage-based models.

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It is not a stretch to suggest that hiring with an eye to these profiles could reduce the occurrence of burnout across the board.  To avoid the triggers of these profiles is key.  To combat emergence of the overextended profile, choose candidates with strong support systems and a history of managing a heavy workload without undue stress.  Disengaged: hire staff that fit in well with your organization’s culture.  Ineffective: offer recognition, appreciation and respect. If you need some help finding the right people in your efforts to combat burnout, get in touch with MASC Medical.  We can help.

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Topics: Burnout, Employee Burnout

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