Combating Staff Burnout

June 1, 2013, Department, by Katherine Broughton, Ph.D., Jarrod Scheunemann, M.S., Chungsup Lee, M.S., and Laura Payne, Ph.D.

Actively working to improve employee wellness and civility can make a world of difference with your staff.As park and recreation professionals navigate through the recession, it seems like most agencies are pressed to do more with fewer resources, such as maintaining facility and programming levels with a flat or even reduced budget. These challenging times have also put more strain on staff who are working more hours, often without directors being able to reward dedication and productivity with raises. This is the case in Illinois, where the top trends and issues identified by Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA) members in their 2012 membership survey were staff burnout and morale issues. In response to the survey results, the University of Illinois Office of Recreation and Park Resources staff worked with IPRA to develop and publish a white paper on the subject. Here, we examine the concept of burnout and describe cutting-edge, evidence-based initiatives that are working to help reduce staff burnout and improve morale.

What Is Burnout?

Staff burnout is defined as “a condition of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with people in some capacity” (Maslach et al. 1996:4). Emotional exhaustion refers to the energy discharge of emotional resources, which is considered the keystone of staff burnout. Secondly, depersonalization can be explained as people behaving with a “cold” heart or an indifferent attitude. Finally, reduced personal accomplishment is the tendency to devalue one’s work, which leads to a negative self-assessment (Maslach et al. 1996).

According to researchers, staff burnout could lead to higher rates of illness, lower staff morale, increased use of alcohol and drugs, lower career satisfaction, high staff turnover, reduced quality of service, and poor customer outcomes (Barnett et al. 1999; Maslach and Jackson 1986; Moore and Cooper 1996). Furthermore, staff burnout can influence the psychological health of staff. For example, Hegarty (1987) conducted a case study on British staff who served community members with learning disabilities. One staff member stated that she needed to leave her work and enter psychotherapy to treat her own health because of staff burnout. It is also important to note that staff burnout does not apply to only one specific work class (e.g., operations, recreation, parks, administration, seasonal). Caton et al. (1988) measured the burnout of four different staff groups (i.e., professional staff, direct-care staff, educational development assistants and support staff), and they found the level of burnout among all of these groups to be at moderate or high levels.

Causes of Burnout
There are four causes of burnout (Borritz 2006). Situational and personal influences can lead to burnout, such as personality, overcommitment and setting unrealistic job expectations (Beasley et al. 2003). Secondly, burnout may occur at the interpersonal level. The most representative example of this is when employee resources become unbalanced with client demands (Maslach 1993). Generally, organizations may look at it as a good thing when clients’ demands exceed employees’ resources, since it would create the opportunity to learn, improve and increase productivity (Ulrich 1997). However, when client demands exceed the employees’ resources, this may lead to staff apathy, causing them to feel like they cannot do anything about it. Thirdly, staff burnout may be a result of organizational factors. Organizational factors are based upon the perception of the level of respect that employees receive from the organization in which they work (Ramarajan and Barsade 2006). According to Grandey (2003), emotional exhaustion may be caused by the perceived need of employees to disguise their feelings of disrespect for their employer to their clients. The final reason for burnout stems from a slightly different concept called emotional labor. It refers to the process by which workers are expected to manage their feelings in accordance with organizationally defined rules and guidelines (Hochschild 1983). The expenditure of emotional labor is especially critical in the human services profession, since staff have a high frequency of interaction with coworkers, community members and patrons; they need not only use physical labor, but also emotional labor. Therefore, this could easily cause staff to become emotionally exhausted.

Approaches to Combat Burnout
As expected, staff burnout is a complex problem. Due to its complexity, researchers and organizations have suggested diverse approaches to solving this problem. There are many strategies (e.g., problem, emotion and relationship-based coping; lifestyle coping) that are used to address staff burnout, and our focus is on two strategies that have been examined by researchers and seem to be novel and effective in organizations: (1) decreasing presenteeism and (2) increasing civility. Employee or worksite wellness programs can decrease presenteeism (i.e., when employees come to work despite being ill or under stress and are unable to function at full capacity), and increasing civility can effectively decrease disrespectful behavior, which is often a symptom of burnout and low morale.

Value of Worksite Wellness Programs
An abundance of information exists about the benefits of wellness programs in regard to lowering the healthcare costs of a company. These worksite wellness programs have proven to be profitable, with more money saved in healthcare costs compared to the money invested in the wellness program. One aspect that is often overlooked when researching the benefits of a wellness program is the increase in employee morale and decrease in presenteeism (Widera et al. 2010). One of the primary reasons for presenteeism is stress, and ultimately stress leads to low staff morale and a loss in productivity (Jones 2012). According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, being at work and not being at 100 percent causes an estimated $10 billion per year in lost productivity. In a white paper by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO 2012), the authors asserted that employers who support healthy behaviors through programming can reduce presenteeism. Berry et al. (2010) found that participants in a wellness program have higher performance at work than those who do not participate. With a successful wellness program, employee pride can be increased and the culture of the company can be improved (Berry et al. 2010).

One example of a company focusing on employee health and well-being to optimize morale and reduce burnout is the Denver Center for Crime Victims (Panepento 2004). At each employee’s annual review, they not only make goals for work, but also for overall life improvement. They are required to make plans and outline steps to improve their physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual well-being. Through the evaluation of this initiative, this organization noted many employees made significant improvements to their lifestyles, and the center’s emphasis on wellness has helped increase staff morale and productivity, and decrease burnout.

Park and recreation professionals often join the field because of their desire to help people. Frequently, their primary focus is to increase recreation and leisure opportunities in the community, which in turn increases the public’s health and well-being. It is imperative to consider wellness and recreation opportunities not only for the community, but for the agency staff as well. Creating a wellness program that is holistic can help improve morale and combat burnout. Some possible solutions include:
• Offer a series of guest speakers and experiential sessions that expose staff to a variety of wellness strategies that encompass physical, emotional, social, intellectual and occupational aspects (e.g., yoga, meditation, therapeutic writing, creative endeavors, etc.).
• Provide staff with access to fitness and wellness facilities. If a community center or gym is part of the agency, encourage employees to take a break during the work day and utilize the facilities for free or for a discount.
• Incorporate personal health and wellness goals into annual reviews.
• Have an ill employee telecommute instead of coming into the office.

Increasing Civility Among Staff

Discourteous behavior is increasing in the workplace and is often a symptom of burnout and low morale. Incivility can be considered disrespect and lack of consideration, or it can be behavior that is rude, bullying or thoughtless (Porath and Pearson 2013). These behaviors are less obvious and are sometimes overlooked, but they can negatively impact employee morale.

One example is the manager who sends emails during someone’s presentation or who texts when you are having a conversation. It is important for managers to teach, explain and model civility to staff (Porath and Pearson 2013). It is also necessary to encourage and promote civility in the workplace so there is a low-stress atmosphere, which can help maintain employee morale. This means managers must insist on (and practice) common courtesy and civility to create a safe and respectful workplace (Hughes 2010). Another important strategy is for managers and staff to be open and ask for feedback regarding their own behavior. Self-monitoring and self-awareness can often be forgotten during a stressful situation or during planned or unplanned organizational change (e.g., agency department reorganizations, downsizing, budget cuts, crises). Some model programs exist that effectively address civility among staff.

The Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA) National Center for Organization Development (NCOD) developed the Civility, Respect and Engagement at Work (CREW) model as a way to improve civility in the workplace. This approach has demonstrated its ability to create respectful interactions and increase civility. Aspects include active listening to colleagues, accommodating coworker’s preferences and understanding how one’s behavior might impact others (Osatuke et al. 2009). The CREW program occurs over six months during which facilitators lead workshops guided by discussion topics and group exercises. The group identifies ways of interacting with each other that are different than the usual methods. Participants role play and then try their newly learned behaviors in the workplace. Research findings indicated that CREW improved civility and diminished levels of burnout (Leiter et al. 2011). Like the VHA system, park and recreation professionals are in the service industry and interact with customers and the public daily. It is important to emphasize civility in the workplace and approach situations and customers and employees in the most respectful way possible.

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Katherine Broughton is an Assistant Professor at Illinois State University, Jarrod Scheunemann is Community Education and Services Coordinator for the Office of Recreation and Park Resources (ORPR) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Chungsup Lee is a doctoral student at UIUC, and Laura Payne is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Recreation, Sport & Tourism at UIUC (