High-quality working conditions can prevent burnout
The results from a 35-year Finnish follow-up study based on data collected when the participants were adolescents, in their mid-thirties and in their mid-forties show that the risk factors of job burnout accumulate over a person’s lifetime. However, the follow-up study also found that it is possible to overcome the effects of any unfavourable early experiences by adjusting job demands and job resources during adulthood to prevent stress and ultimately burnout.
About the study
A collaborative Finnish–Dutch study by Jari Hakanen and Markku Jokisaari from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) and Arnold B. Bakker from Erasmus University Rotterdam, examined the impact of events during life on job burnout (Hakanen et al, 2011). The researchers combined two approaches:
- the Job Demands–Resources Model (Demerouti et al, 2001; Bakker and Demerouti, 2007), which highlights aspects of the job that can either bring about or prevent burnout;
- the Unhealthy Life Career hypothesis (Lundberg, 1993), which draws attention to early experiences as explanations for job burnout later in life.
Study of long-term influences
Using Finnish longitudinal data, the researchers were able to examine a period of over three decades in their search for precursors of job burnout. The data originated from the Healthy Child Study, which consisted of a sample of Finnish children from 1950. Its third study time point, 1961–1963 (1,084 people) was used as the basis for the burnout study. Additional data on the same people were collected in 1985 and 1998. With panel attrition and further restrictions, the final sample consisted of 511 people who were employed in 1998 and for whom data were available at all three time points.
The three data points coincided with the following ages of the participants:
- adolescence (1961–1963);
- mid-30s (1985);
- late 40s (1998).
These data therefore provided a rare opportunity to study the long-term influence of job burnout rather than aspects of the current job.
Factors that were taken into account included parents’ socioeconomic status (education, income, housing conditions) and the child’s cognitive ability from the earliest time point (that is, 1961–1963. Measures at the later time points, 1985 and 1998, included the respondent’s education (basic and vocational), job demands and skill variety. A measure of self-reported stress from 1985 was also used.
Nature of job burnout
The ultimate dependent variable was a measure of job burnout from 1998. Job burnout was measured by the general version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI-GS), which consists of the following three subscales:
- exhaustion (severe and chronic);
- cynicism (loss of job engagement and meaningfulness);
- (lack of) professional efficacy.
Opportunities to prevent burnout
The study concluded that some experiences acquired during childhood can protect from later burnout. This is because positive resources acquired early in life typically lead to higher educational attainment and consequently higher skill variety, which helps prevent burnout. Unfortunately, higher educational attainment may also bring with it higher demands, which can also cause burnout. Indeed, it is the discrepancy between demands and the resources available to meet those demands which causes stress and may ultimately lead to burnout.
However, the preventive path appears to be stronger than the harmful one. Therefore, even unfavourable early conditions can be compensated by favourable working conditions during adulthood. Here, the focus was on skill variety, which included the following components:
- opportunity to use one’s knowledge and skills in work;
- non-repetitiveness of work tasks;
- variety of work tasks.
The importance of this study is highlighted by the need to extend work careers – a crucial goal in Finland as in many other countries. A number of working groups established by the social partners have been looking at ways to achieve this goal through changes to benefit systems (pension, unemployment) and improvements in the quality of work life. In line with these results the 2011 Framework Agreement between Finland’s social partners included an important training principle (FI1110011I). However, training is only beneficial if it can be applied to work tasks.
Bakker, A.B. and Demerouti, E. (2007), ‘The Job Demands-Resources Model: State of the art’, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 22, 2007, pp. 309–328.
Demerouti, E., Bakker, A.B., Nachreiner, F. and Schaufeli, W.B. (2001), ‘The Job Demands-Resources Model of burnout’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 86, 2001, pp. 499–512.
Hakanen, J.J., Bakker, A.B. and Jokisaari, M. (2011), ‘A 35-year follow-up study on burnout among Finnish employees’, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol. 16, 2011, pp. 345–360.
Lundberg, O. (1993), ‘The impact of childhood living conditions on illness and mortality in adulthood’, Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 36, 1993, pp. 1047–1052.
Simo Virtanen, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health