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Can Positive Psychological Traits Prevent Burnout?

A recent study investigated the entwined relationships between work stress, mental well-being, and resilience to determine how they contribute to employee burnout.

A large proportion of the working population experience work stress at some stage of their career.

In some instances, this can have a toxic impact on an employee’s mental and physical health. Among other issues, this can lead to burnout, which is characterized by cynicism, exhaustion, and overwhelming feelings of detachment and ineffectiveness.

The resultant effects include a decline in productivity and commitment.

It is therefore easy to see why some employers have started to develop strategies to maintain the physical and mental well-being of their employees, particularly those involved in health care and education.

A Chinese study, recently published in the BMJ Psychiatry, investigated the associations between job stress, well-being, and burnout in manufacturing employees, who are susceptible to burnout due to the often monotonous and repetitive nature of their work.

The investigators randomly selected 1,500 employees from 26 factories involved in manufacturing airplane components to participate in this short-term (June-July 2015) cross-sectional study.

The participants were asked to complete a number of questionnaires designed to paint an overall picture of their mental well-being.

These included an occupational stress questionnaire, which gauged the perceived imbalance between the effort put into a job and the rewards gained from a job.

An imbalance can lead to emotional distress.

A Psychological capita, or PsyCap, questionnaire measured positive mental traits, such as hope, self-efficacy, resilience, and optimism.

Therefore, individuals with positive PsyCap scores are better able to manage the effects of work stress on mental well-being and are less likely to suffer burnout.

A self-esteem questionnaire identified those who were more likely to suffer emotional exhaustion and be less able to deal with work stress.

Other questionnaires measured burnout (emotional exhaustion, cynicism, professional efficacy) and well-being (engagement, interests, optimism, purpose). Demographic and working factors were also considered.

Resilience Protects Against Burnout

Almost one-quarter (22.4%) of the 1,219 employees who responded experienced work stress. Of these, 75.7% were male and 24.3% female.

Not surprisingly, lower income and education levels, longer working hours, and fewer years of working were associated with burnout.

Younger employees were also more likely to suffer emotional exhaustion, possibly because they did not possess the experience to deal with different situations.

There was a definite interplay between positive mental characteristics (that is, a higher PsyCap score), self-esteem, and effort-reward imbalance, all of which influenced burnout.

Employees with more positive mental characteristics were better able to cope with work stress: they had better effort-reward balance, were less emotionally exhausted, and were less cynical.

Naturally, this translated to better professional efficacy and better physical and mental well-being.

Similar results were seen in employees with higher self-esteem.

The authors suggest that employers must recognize that individuals experience and deal with work stress in different ways.

Therefore, intervention strategies that enhance and develop positive psychological characteristics, such as hope, self-efficacy, optimism, and resilience, could be designed to help prevent burnout and support employee mental well-being.

However, as the current study only focussed on a specific group of Chinese manufacturers, these results must be confirmed in further studies in other groups.

Written by Natasha Tetlow, PhD

Reference: Wang Z, Liu H, Yu H, et al. Associations between occupational stress, burnout and well-being among manufacturing workers: mediation roles of psychological capital and self-esteem. BMJ Psychiatry. 2017;15:364 Available at: doi: 10.1186/s12888-017-1533-6.

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