From Burnout To Work Engagement: An Interview With Dr. Wilmar Schaufeli

Guest Contributorby David Zinger | Posted | Engagement

From Burnout To Work Engagement: An Interview With Dr. Wilmar Schaufeli

Dr. Wilmar Schaufeli is a leading psychology expert who focuses on burnout and work engagement. He has published about 500 scientific articles, chapters and books. Although I can't keep up with the volume of his work, I always look forward to reading his latest thinking and research on the topic. I firmly believe his work should be required reading for anyone leading employee engagement for their organization.

Dr. Schaufeli is among the top 1% of most cited researchers in psychology. He is both an academic and a consultant so he offers a broad understanding of the dynamics of employee engagement and the workplace.

This brief interview touches upon some of his current thinking on engagement and burnout.

What engages you the most in your own work and what has most stood out for you this decade surrounding the subjects of engagement and burnout?

What engages me the most is to see that science works. By that I mean that scientifically validated models, like the Job Demands-Resources model, are being used in practice to help organizations to prevent burnout and to increase employee engagement. I recently wrote a paper about how to do that. In a way, it is magic for me to see that putting pieces together into a model at one's academic desk - that is, crafting an intellectual tool - may ultimately impact on employee's well-being at the shop floor.

How would you describe the relationship between work engagement and burnout?

I know that there is much debate about that. Recently, I have edited a special issue about this question together with my colleague Hans De Witte. Some people believe that burnout and work engagement are redundant concepts. However, our own research shows that burnout and work engagement are distinct concepts, yet they are negatively related. That means that, generally speaking, when engagement is high, burnout is low and vice versa.

This is particularly true for short time intervals. In fact, one cannot feel burned-out and engaged simultaneously at one particular moment in time. Yet across longer periods one can feel engaged on certain days and burned-out others.

Some researchers believe that work engagement should be assessed by using an instrument that only measures burnout as opposed to a measure that assesses both engagement and burnout. To me that is rather awkward because scoring low on a burnout scale only signifies that you are not burned-out. But that same measure that indicates you are not burned-out doesn't mean that you are engaged. We need a measure that can range from low levels of burnout to high levels of engagement. This is possible with the instruments that we have designed based on the Job Demands-Resources model.

Do you believe that work engagement has the potential to play a role in preventing or being an antidote to burnout?

Work engagement is a high-energy state, whereby people also feel deeply involved in their work. In contrast, burnout is a state of chronic mental exhaustion, which is characterized by a lack of energy and mental distance. So, energy versus exhaustion and dedication versus cynicism.

That means organizations should be aware and take action as soon as energy and dedication levels drop amongst their workers. This is a bad omen. This also means organizations should invest in keeping engagement high because high levels of energy and dedication prevent employees from moving towards the opposite poles of exhaustion and cynicism, which are the hallmark of burnout.

You work as both an academic and a consultant on engagement. What do academics know about engagement that seems to be lacking in much of the consulting in employee engagement? How cautious do we need to be about the claims made in improving engagement or alleviating burnout?

First of all, proper concepts and good engagement measures should be used.

Sometimes consultants confuse engagement with job satisfaction, organizational commitment, or extra-role performance ("going the extra mile"). Albeit related, these are different things that are measured differently as well. Second, rather than relating engagement with numerous job characteristics and outcomes, it is important to use conceptual models - like the Job Demands-Resources model - to understand the antecedents and the consequences of engagement, and the processes that are governing it.

I believe that we know already a lot about engagement and how to increase it. The problem is how to implement this knowledge in organizations.

It is extremely difficult to prove indisputably that interventions to prevent or combat burnout and to increase engagement are effective - at least at the organizational or team level. For that, an experimental design would be necessary and this is virtually impossible to achieve in organizations. So, we are left with less rigorous studies, such as case studies that are open to scientific criticism. On the other hand, meta-analytic studies show small but consistent positive effects of individual burnout interventions. Also positive effects of individual engagement interventions (e.g., mindfulness and job crafting) have been documented in controlled studies.

If you could offer just three tips or things leaders should know or do to improve engagement of lessen burnout with their people what would those three ideas be?

We know that emotional states such as burnout and engagement are contagious. We have shown that engaged leaders might infect their followers. That is the good news. The bad news is that the same applies for burnout. So, the first tip is to take care that you feel engaged (and not burned-out) yourself.

Second, by allocating optimal job demands and resources for each team member, leaders can increase engagement and prevent burnout. It is the balance between both that counts. Moreover people differ with regards to resilience, ambitions, etc. Striking that balance is different for each employee.

Finally, our research shows that engaging leaders strengthen, empower, inspire, and connect their followers.

Leadership behaviors, such as delegating (strengthening), encouraging voice (empowering), enthusing (inspiring) and social bonding (connecting) lead to higher levels of employee engagement.

Where do you think we are headed with work, engagement, and burnout as we move towards the year 2020?

I see two important changes in the world of work that constitute major challenges.

In most countries people will have to work longer before they retire. This means that sustained employability - working healthy, motivated and productively, also at higher ages - will be a major topic in the near future. Keeping employees who have to work longer engaged and prevent them from burning out. I believe that keeping jobs challenging is key.

The other change involves the rapid increase of flex jobs and precarious employment. The challenge here is keeping employees in these jobs engaged. Providing employees with ample job resources such as learning opportunities and career perspectives increases engagement, but such resources are typically lacking in flex jobs.

In conclusion, what else would you like to add about work and burnout?

When I started burnout research at the end of the 1980s, people told me it was a fad. They told me the same at the end of the 1990s when I started my engagement research. But burnout and engagement are here to stay. They are part and parcel of today's organizational reality.

Meanwhile, we know quite a lot from research, and much work is done in practice. Yet I would wish that scientist and practitioners would collaborate more closely. Both would benefit from that.

To learn more about Dr. Schaufeli's work and to gain access to articles and writing about his work visit:

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Cover of the book
Cover of the book

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