Study explores factors that lead to burnout in workplace

For decades now, researchers have been looking at the many factors that lead to burnout in the workplace. One blind spot, however, has been gender. Burnout affects thousands of workers in Quebec every year, and now a study by researchers in industrial relations and sociology at Université de Montréal has revealed just how markedly different the issue is for men and women.

"Our results show that there are differences between men and women because, from the outset, employees are subject to different working conditions depending on their gender," said lead author Nancy Beauregard, a professor at UdeM's School of Industrial Relations. Indeed, female employees often burn out at a faster rate simply because of the nature of their work.

"Many women have positions that offer little latitude in decision-making, meaning that their work only provides them with a low level of authority and decision-making power and makes little use of their skills," said Beauregard, a researcher at the Observatoire sur la santé et le mieux-être au travail. "This type of position, which men are less likely to hold, causes women to burn out."

Self-esteem an issue

In their study, published in Annals of Work Exposures and Health, Beauregard and colleagues in UdeM's sociology department found that lower self-esteem and increased work-family conflicts, such as when work encroaches on time spent with loved ones or leaves no energy for non-work activities, occur much more frequently in women, and often cause them to burn out.

Time spent doing household chores (e.g. washing dishes or getting the groceries) can help women avoid burnout, the researchers also found. "This is one of the most surprising findings of our study," said Beauregard. "We observed that many women use household chores as a strategy to escape the demands of their work and to 'vent'.

"In the short term, this can be a protective mechanism against burnout. In the long term, however, this strategy can become a trap and result in missed opportunities for advancement, causing women to remain confined to positions with low decision-latitude."

What about men?

The factors that lead to burnout in men are more complex and are related to time management, the researchers found. More hours worked or more frequent atypical schedules lead to increased work-family conflicts, which affects men's mental health.

However, some factors are unrelated to gender. Excessive psychological demands, employment insecurity and a lack of recognition at work all lead to burnout in both men and women. "We can reasonably hypothesize that, if men and women had identical working conditions, their burnout rates would be similar," said Beauregard.

Towards gender-based prevention

"Are women and men equal in the workplace? That is far from certain," she added. "This is why we need to find solutions for everyone and develop an adapted approach to prevention."

If women burn out because they have less latitude to make decisions, perhaps their work should be reorganized so they can use the skills they have. "This outside-the-box solution is more likely to break the vicious cycle of burnout" and reduce absenteeism, Beauregard said. "It's time to reflect more deeply on the way we approach mental health in the workplace."

Who's most at risk?

For their study, the UdeM researchers used a sample of participants in SALVEO (2009-2012), one the most extensive studies on mental health in the workplace ever done in Canada.

Of the 2,026 workers they looked at, almost half – 49 per cent – were women, employed in 63 workplaces in Quebec across a number of economic sectors and recruited for the study through the group-insurance plans of a major Canadian insurance company.

Burnout was assessed in all participants using a questionnaire that probed issues such as emotional exhaustion, cynicism and professional effectiveness.

"Although our study's subjects come from diverse professions and sectors, we cannot generalize the results to the entire population," said Beauregard. "Nevertheless, this is an excellent starting point for understanding the role of gender in burnout and finding more adapted solutions."

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