Could Burnout Get to You, Too?

New research shows how a hot pursuit of your goals can prevent burnout.

Posted Jul 13, 2019

Does your work excite or exhaust you? Is the daily grind getting to be intolerable, or do you love getting up in the morning ready to start your day? According to the World Health Organization, more people feel burned out than turned on by their work. Long hours, endless emails during off-hours, and the constant pressure to perform are leading to a global mental health crisis. However, is it inevitable that hard work can drive you to feel tattered and torn by your responsibilities?

New research by Arizona State University’s David Welsh and colleagues (2019) explores how to sidestep the potential for burnout by adjusting your goal-setting behavior, but not in ways you might expect. According to the authors, “goal-setting theory is one of the most practically important theories in the field of organizational behavior” (p. 1). This theory proposes that “cognitive mechanisms direct attention toward goal-relevant activities and heighten focus and persistence.” In their view, the goal-setting theory is too cognitively oriented. Instead of viewing goal-setting as a cold, calculated process devoid of emotional energy, the Arizona State researchers believe that “hot pursuit" needs to be taken into account. When your goals are hotly pursued, you can get your emotions to work for, and not against, your performance.

Think about your own goal-directed behavior in two different scenarios. In the first, your partner plans a work party for 50 people, and your job is to do all the baking, announcing that you are expected to produce no less than one cupcake per guest. You lay out the series of steps you’ll need to take, all the while fretting that you'll only end up with 40 worthy of presenting to the multitude. Standard goal-setting theory would regard the process as involving nothing more than cold calculation as you go from Step A to Step B to Step C. Get that assembly line going on your kitchen counter, and things should be fine. Why, then, after you've finished, do you find yourself, in the words of Welsh et al.,  in "an unpleasant affective state characterized by uncertainty and unease” (p. 2)? In other words, what is it about this task that leads you to feel emotionally depleted?

In the second scenario, you decide that you want to do as much as you can to make the event a success. You wake up eager and ready to start greasing those pans and prepare for a day of producing not only one cupcake per guest, but also some additional desserts for the gluten-free in the crowd. As you wipe the frosting off your chin, surveying the delicious-looking array, you feel energized and happy. 

What separates anxiety from enthusiasm in these two scenarios, Welsh et al. propose, is whether you have set the goal for yourself (the self-set goal of 50 cupcakes plus extra cookies) or whether your partner has set the goal for you (the organization-set goal). In an ideal world, these sets of goals coincide. When they don’t, the stage is set for anxiety and exhaustion.

The Arizona State researchers tested their model in two separate studies, involving both a field study and an experimental task. In the field study, police officers and their supervisors were followed over four time periods, one month apart. The employees first completed measures of self-set and organization-set goals, and on subsequent months, responded to questionnaires assessing their anxiety, enthusiasm, and emotional exhaustion. Their supervisors completed a measure of “citizenship behavior” at the end of the four months. This measure allowed the researchers to evaluate how well the officers contributed to their department’s goals with items such as: “Offers ideas to improve the functioning of the organization.” The 153 officers who completed the entire study were, on average, 39 years old and had been with their department for about 10 years; 62 percent were male. The supervisors were slightly older (45 years) and had worked for their department an average of 15 years.

To give you an idea of how goals were measured, an item tapping organization-set goals was: “My organization has set challenging performance goals for me.” Self-set goals included items such as: “I have set demanding performance goals for myself at work.” To control for the potential effects of cognitive processes on the outcomes, the authors included measures of cognitive engagement, such as: “At work, my mind is focused on my core job tasks.”

The statistical model employed by the authors made it possible to examine the dual effects of self-set and organization-set goals on self-rated emotional exhaustion and supervisor-rated citizenship behavior. As they predicted, organization-set goals positively impacted emotional exhaustion through the route of anxiety. Conversely, self-set goals worked in the opposite direction, predicting less emotional exhaustion through the route of enthusiasm. In turn, workers feeling less emotional exhaustion also showed better citizenship behaviors. In other words, the “affective reactions” employees had toward their performance goals had real-life consequences in their feeling less exhausted as well as in their ability to contribute to a positive workplace environment.

In the experimental study, the research team brought undergraduate students into the lab, where they were assigned either to a self-set or organization-set condition. Their task was to complete a matrix solution problem either by setting their own performance goals (per instructions to make these challenging) or by trying to reach goals set by the experimenters. In both conditions, participants received the incentive that if they solved the problems, they would not be required to go on to complete another 8 minutes of matrix-solving tasks. The researchers thus created a simulation of a workplace task, following up with a “citizenship” measure in which participants received a request to write (voluntarily) their description of the study they had just completed. The two measures derived from the study as outcome measures were performance (measured by the number of matrices completed) and citizenship (agreement to wite the description and number of words if so).

Results from the lab experiment, though on very different samples and with very different tasks, confirmed those of the field study in that anxiety levels were higher in the experimenter-set goal condition, and enthusiasm was higher in the self-set goal condition. Anxiety positively predicted emotional exhaustion, and enthusiasm negatively predicted exhaustion which, in turn, predicted both poorer performance on the matrix task and poorer compliance with the experimenter’s request for a voluntary write-up of the study.

As the authors concluded, “organization-set and self-set goals are associated with distinct appraisal processes with important implications for employees’ downstream attitudes and behaviors” (p. 15). In other words, the way that employees feel about their jobs is a function of whether they feel that their goals are in sync with their own personal performance standards. Those “downstream” effects are what will determine whether demands for high performance lead employees to feel that dread or excitement about showing up for work the next day. If they feel emotionally connected to their goals, moreover, they’ll not only work harder, but also will be more pleasant to have around the workplace.

To sum up, it’s not the performance standards themselves that can produce employee burnout. When they can bring together the goals they have for themselves with the goals their employers set for them, they’ll be more likely to engage in, and enjoy, that “hot pursuit.”

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References

Welsh, D. T., Baer, M. D., & Sessions, H. (2019). Hot pursuit: The affective consequences of organization-set versus self-set goals for emotional exhaustion and citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/apl0000429