How burnout is measured in the workplace
This chapter explains how burnout is measured in the workplace. It provides an overview of several of the key methods of measuring burnout including the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the Burnout Measure (BM), the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI), the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI), and the Shirom–Melamed Burnout Questionnaire (S-MBQ).
Over the years, researchers have sought a way to measure levels of burnout either in individuals or in occupational groups. Putting together a reliable instrument has been a problem given the debate over the very definition of burnout. For researchers, it is a “chicken and egg” problem: how are they to measure the levels of a syndrome when they cannot agree precisely on what they’re supposed to be measuring? On the other hand, let’s imagine a researcher chooses a specific definition and puts together a means of measuring the syndrome accordingly. If the definition is not deemed acceptable to other researchers in the same field, what is the value of the results? Are they totally meaningless? Questions such as these have plagued the study of burnout since the earliest days of such research, and debates regarding the definition of the syndrome have been especially problematic for empirical research (Schaufeli et al., 1993).
In the early 1980s, Professors Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson put together a means of measuring burnout – a “burnout inventory” – which has since become the most popular tool. Their inventory measures the extent to which workers in several types of human services occupations report their experiences of symptoms in three dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (i.e., “negative, cynical attitudes and feelings about one’s client” (Maslach and Pines, 1979)) and reduced personal accomplishment (i.e., “a tendency to evaluate one’s own performance negatively” (Maslach and Pines, 1979)).
These three dimensions are not the product of hypothesis; they were derived from studies done by Maslach and Jackson on various human services occupations. Not unimportantly, in the years since the publication of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), research involving tens of thousands of individuals in the human services professions has clearly shown the persistence of the three dimensions it measures (Leiter and Schaufeli, 1996).
Some researchers not wholly content with Maslach and Jackson’s original inventory have themselves published burnout measurement instruments. Like the Maslach and Jackson burnout inventory, these newer burnout-measurement instruments continue to “assess feelings and emotions that are generated in work-related settings” (Schaufeli et al., 1993). Also, like the MBI in one of its later iterations, other researchers have designed their survey instruments for use in non-human services occupational groups. What differs, however, is that these other burnout measurement instruments often use a slightly different definition of burnout than Maslach and Jackson.
What follows is an overview of some of the measurement instruments most frequently used to measure rates of burnout in the workplace and in other population groups. They are alike in that all of them contain sample statements called “items” (e.g., “I feel very energetic” or “Working with people directly puts too much stress on me”). Survey participants are expected to respond to these items by indicating the extent to which or the frequency with which they have experienced the sentiments mentioned in the inventory.
The dissimilarities among the instruments are related to what they attempt to measure. It is here that one is able to observe the variations in opinion in terms of what burnout is, and how one should define it.
The MBI (Maslach and Jackson, 1981, 1986; Maslach et al., 1996) is the survey instrument most commonly used to measure burnout in various populations (Densten, 2001). The MBI as originally conceived contained 25 items spread over four subscales (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of reduced personal accomplishment and involvement).
A second version of the MBI, published in 1986, contained 22 items with three subscales intended to measure the following burnout components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of reduced personal accomplishment. “Involvement” was omitted. The inventory was created for individuals who worked in human services fields. Higher scores on the first two components and a lower score on the third would indicate to the researcher moderate to severe degrees of burnout in the employee who had responded to the survey. A third edition of the MBI (also called the Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS)) was published in 1996 and meant specifically for human services professions (Maslach et al., 1996).
As noted above, the MBI is intended to measure burnout specifically among individuals who work in human services professions with direct recipients of these services, i.e., clients, patrons, students, patients, etc. The twenty-two items (i.e., statements including “I feel emotionally drained from my work,” “I feel frustrated by my job”) are answered on a frequency scale ranging from “never” (an answer which is given 0 points) to “every day” (an answer given 6 points). The frequency scale is meant to sort out individuals who have “bad days” interspersed with “good days” from those who are experiencing certain feelings or thoughts much or most of the time (Maslach, 2011).
Variant versions of the MBI exist including a version for those who work in education (the MBI-Educator Survey (MBI-ES): Maslach and Jackson, 1986a). This survey’s items specifically refer to students rather than the recipients of one’s service, care or instruction (e.g., “I don’t really care what happens to some students”). In the same manner as the MBI for human services professionals, the instrument consists of 22 items which are answered on a frequency scale ranging from 0 (“never”) to 6 (“every day”). Once again, the labels for the three dimensions measured are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment.
Another version, the MBI-General Survey (MBI-GS; Schaufeli et al., 1996), is intended to measure burnout among groups of individuals who do not have a significant human services component as part of their job. Questions focus specifically on the job rather than the impact of dealing with other people as an integral part of the job. Hence the items to be responded to are, for example, “I feel emotionally drained from my work;” “I have become less enthusiastic about my work;” “I can effectively solve the problems that arise in my work” (Schaufeli et al., 1996). Given that the occupations are not people-oriented, the labels for the three dimensions measured are exhaustion, cynicism and reduced personal efficiency.
Like the MBI for human service professionals, the MBI-GS measures exhaustion; however, unlike the MBI, the five items on this subscale do not contain questions which explore the extent to which other people are the source of the exhaustion. The second subscale, cynicism, contains five items which measure negative attitudes and whether an individual has distanced him or herself from work.
The third subscale, reduced personal efficiency, contains six items which measure the negative assessment of one’s present and past accomplishments, as well as feelings regarding any decline in competence. Like the MBI for human services professionals, the items are answered on a 6-point, frequency scale ranging from 0 (“never”) to 6 (“every day”). Unlike the MBI and the MBI-ES which have 22 items, the MBI-GS consists of 16 items.
The MBI and its various versions have been translated into several languages, and have been used to measure burnout in a variety of occupations in countries around the world. Researchers generally support the MBI’s three subscales (Lee and Ashforth, 1990; Taris et al., 1999; Schaufeli et al., 2001; Schutte et al., 2000); however, some have continued to have their doubts. As a result, certain researchers in the burnout community have sought to develop alternative inventories. These alternatives to the MBI are discussed below.
The Burnout Measure (BM) is a 21-item questionnaire developed by Pines and Aronson to measure the “state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding” (1988, p. 9). It is the instrument used most frequently as an alternative to the MBI. The 21 items are rated on a 7-point frequency scale (with 1 = “never” and 7 = “always”) in which individuals are asked about their feelings and symptoms. The authors of the measure use an algorithm to derive a score. Individuals who score a 4 or higher are deemed to be burned out. Unlike the MBI, the instrument may be used for all occupations and is also suitable for non-occupational groups, that is, groups sharing some characteristic other than doing the same kind of work.
The authors have tested the measure on thousands of subjects with varying backgrounds including those in human services occupations, as well as business, management, science, administration, technical jobs, clerical work, and teaching. The BM has also been used to measure burnout in students, and is considered a reliable and valid instrument (Schaufeli et al., 1993). Nonetheless, unlike the MBI discussed above which measures three burnout components (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of reduced personal accomplishment), the BM measures exhaustion only.
The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI) is intended to measure fatigue and exhaustion as indicators of burnout. Unlike the MBI, it does not measure depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment.
The CBI consists of three scales. The first measures personal burnout, and therefore can be used for everyone, even individuals who are not employed. The questions here have been influenced in part by the BM, but are worded differently and have different response options (Kristensen et al., 2005, p. 200). “How often are you physically exhausted” and “How often do you feel weak and susceptible to illness?” (Kristensen et al., 2005, p. 200) are just two of the six items in this section.
The second scale is influenced by the questions having to do with emotional exhaustion on the MBI/MBI-GS instruments. This scale measures work-related burnout and, therefore, is applicable only to those individuals who do paid work. The seven items on this scale include “Do you feel worn out at the end of the working day?” and “Is your work emotionally exhausting?” (Kristensen et al., 2005, p. 200).
The final scale measures client-related burnout and is meant specifically for those individuals who work with human services recipients such as clients, patients, students, patrons, or inmates. It does not measure work with customers or colleagues. The six items on this scale include “Does it drain your energy to work with clients?” and “Do you sometimes wonder how long you will be able to continue working with clients?” (Kristensen et al., 2005, p. 200).
The CBI is appropriate for jobs which have varying degrees of client contact. Researchers have also discovered that, in the various groups studied, the “three scales predicted future sickness, absence, sleep problems, use of pain-killers, and intention to quit” (Kristensen et al., 2005, p. 192). Clearly, this information is particularly useful to organizations experiencing higher rates of burnout, absenteeism and employee turnover.
One complaint about the original MBI was that it was designed specifically to measure burnout in individuals working in human services fields, while another was that all the items in a particular subscale were worded in a similar way. So, for example, the exhaustion and depersonalization subscales were worded negatively “I feel emotionally drained from my work,” and “Working with people all day is a real strain for me”) while the items in the personal accomplishment scale were worded positively (“I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job,” and “I feel I am positively influencing other people’s lives through my work”).
The Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI; Demerouti, 1999; Demerouti et al., 2003) was intended to rectify these two complaints. The OLBI measures the levels of exhaustion and disengagement from work in various types of workers including those who do primarily physical work and those who are involved in information processing. The exhaustion subscale contains 7 items intended to measure physical and mental overtaxing and the need for rest. Four of the seven items are worded negatively and the remainder positively; for example: “After my work, I usually feel worn out and weary,” and “After my work, I usually feel totally fit for my leisure activities” (Demerouti, 2001, p. 503).
The eight items on the disengagement subscale, in contrast, are intended to measure whether and to what extent individuals have distanced themselves from their work and whether they have developed negative or cynical attitudes towards the work they do. Items on the subscale include “I usually talk about my work in a derogatory way” and “I get more and more engaged in my work” (Demerouti, 2001, p. 503). The answering categories for both subscales are the same: 1 = “totally disagree”; 4 = “totally agree.”
The OLBI has been found to work in both the human services context and in other occupational settings in which employees do not work with human services recipients (Demerouti et al., 2002). In theory, this makes it somewhat more flexible (although, arguably, less specific) than those surveys geared towards a particular subset of the working population.
For Shirom, burnout is “the chronic depletion of an individual’s energetic resources” as a result of exposure to occupational stress (Shirom, 1989, p. 33). The Shirom-Melamed Burnout Questionnaire (S-MBQ) consists of 22 items which measure levels of burnout by focusing on five dimensions: emotional and physical exhaustion, tension, listlessness and cognitive weariness (Kushnir and Melamed, 1992; Melamed et al., 1999). Unlike the MBI, the S-MBQ attempts to separate out coping mechanisms such as distancing oneself from clients and work, and the consequences of burnout (a decrease in performance whether real or perceived).
A recent study using the measure (Lundgren-Nilsson et al., 2012) found problems with the S-MBQ in its original 22-item form. A revised 18-item survey, in which items measuring tension were removed, worked well. Researchers concluded that the total score from the questionnaire was a sufficient statistic for screening for burnout.
Despite its occasional detractors, the MBI remains the survey instrument used most often to determine the presence and the extent of burnout in specific populations. Nonetheless, the various other instruments discussed above, either in their original or revised forms, have also garnered supporters. Appropriately, those who study burnout will continue to tinker with such instruments in order to produce other and better ways of studying the syndrome with the goal of more precisely identifying both individual workers and larger worker population groups who are at risk.
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