Stress and Burnout, Part III: Definitions and measurements of how burnt you really are

Editor’s Note: This week, we’re doing a deep dive into the topic of stress and burnout among student journalists and journalism students. The issues addressed here are part of a larger set of research articles I’ve done with colleagues, outside work done by those colleagues (as well as other researchers) and presentations I’ve done over the years at student media conventions. If you are interested in learning more, please hit me up on the contact page.

In case you missed the earlier posts:

To understand the impact of stress and burnout, it is important to understand what these terms actually mean. People can often use them colloquially, much in the same way that someone who skipped lunch might note, “I’m starving to death!” The concept of hunger is clear in this, but, in a clinical sense, that statement is not accurate.

When examined clinically and diagnosed appropriately, stress and burnout manifest themselves in measurable ways that create significant negative impacts for the individuals suffering from these issues. With that in mind, we’re going to look at what these things mean, how they impact us and also how to ascertain your level of stress and burnout in your life.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines stress as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.” In other words, when you are forced to do more than you are physically, mentally or emotionally able to do, you endure stress.

Hans Selye, often called the “father of modern stress research,” defined stress as the rate of wear and tear a person receives from engaging in life. Stress can be a sharp, singular experience, like trying to drive through a freak snow storm, but it can also be the day-to-day grind of tolerating the bumper-to-bumper ride to work.

Stress can result from pleasant situations as well, such as getting a promotion at work and fearing that you won’t be able to handle the new responsibilities or getting an invitation to serve as a keynote speaker at a major event and fearing you will screw it up. Generally speaking, stress goes up and down based on a variety of factors in life, and in most cases, people can recover physically, mentally and emotionally from stress.

A researcher named Christina Maslach began investigating the concept of stress and its relationship to burnout in the 1970s. She found that high levels of repetitive stress can lead to an emotional and physical draining that creates a likelihood of burnout.  Individuals who are extremely dedicated to their work often exceed their stress limits without realizing the damage it is doing to them over time. After this pattern of excess becomes chronic, burnout ensues. Once it does, she and her research colleagues discovered, there is generally no cure.

To measure burnout, Maslach and Jackson (1981) developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The scales within this 22-item instrument measured three key aspects of burnout:

  • Emotional exhaustion: People suffering from this aspect of burnout report feeling “used up” at the end of the day or  “drained” by their work. They often report feeling like they are working too hard at something and getting too little in return. Emotional exhaustion can make people feel like they don’t want to get up and face another day of work or other similar activity. It can also lead to frustration, anxiety and fatigue.


  • Depersonalization: This aspect of burnout manifests itself through the development of negative and cynical attitudes toward other people. The source of the burnout tends to “harden” a person in terms of their views on things that others might feel empathy toward. Burnout sufferers in this area tend to identify people more as things than individuals. (An example of this might be a physician referring to “the broken leg in room 4” instead of “Danny, who has a broken leg.” A journalism example might be the editor asking “Where’s that photog?” as opposed to “Has Jane returned from taking photos yet?”)


  • Personal Accomplishment: This is the scale that measures how much pride individuals take in their successes as they relate to the source of stress. For example, a large final project in a class might lead to a great deal of stress. However, if the professor not only gives you an “A,” but offers to help you get your work published, the hard work and stress can feel worth it due to the reward. This scale runs reverse to the others, in that people suffering from burnout will reflect negatively on their accomplishments or view their achievements as insignificant.

Research in this area has found that burnout can be avoided if high scores on the first two scales (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization) are counterbalanced by a high score on the third (personal accomplishment). Scott Reinardy of KU and I did a look at college media advisers and found that moderate levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization were counterbalanced by high levels of personal accomplishment. In other words, the advisers felt that the juice was worth the squeeze when it came to their efforts in student media.

However, research has also shown that high levels of depersonalization tended to lead to lower personal accomplishment scores. In examining teachers, the researchers found that as educational organizations pushed educators to produce higher test scores and other quantifiable measures of success, teachers felt less connected with their students and were more likely to depersonalize the students. This was because personal growth goals were replaced by metrics.

In studying student journalists and journalism students, we’ve found that this kind of goal-orientation can increase the likelihood of burnout. As a deadline-oriented, scoop-driven business, journalism requires participants to push toward an end goal. The drive to get the paper out, get the story editing, get the photo shot and more can supersede an individual’s sense of what it’s doing to them and the people around them.

Thus, it doesn’t matter that Johnny is sick. We need a photo, so call him because he’s the only one we have left to shoot it. It doesn’t matter if Sally’s parents are in town. Someone has to cover the chancellor’s state of the university address. See if she can get her parents to work around that. It doesn’t matter that Carlos has a study group for a midterm tonight. We need a copy editor for sports and nobody else understands AP’s rules on numbers like he does. See if he can borrow some notes or something.

In addition, student journalists are often asked to face things they have never previously encountered as part of being a “cub reporter” who is “cutting their teeth” in the field. Thus, they find themselves talking to people who just had a friend die in a fire or asking a dean about allegations of sexual misconduct. They find that even simple stories can have mistakes that would have just cost them a point or two in some other class but in journalism can lead to fatal factual errors that doom their grades. Even more, people who see their mistakes can express outrage or mockery, leading to additional problems and fears.

Again, not all stressful situations lead to burnout, but it’s often like that car analogy from the previous post: We ignore the warning light telling us that we’re a quart low on oil until suddenly the whole engine seizes up and we’re broken. That’s why it’s important to analyze your levels of burnout potential on the three scales in the MBI to determine how you are doing in any given field.

If you want, you can download a copy of the MBI scale that Scott and I reworked when we were doing our media research. In each case, we had our participants focus their answers or their thoughts on a particular area of life (advising the paper, serving as a newspaper editor etc.). If you want to look at it generally, you can do that as well, although it’s a little harder to pinpoint the causes of potential burnout if you’re not pinpointing the aspect of life that’s stressing you out.

If you and others are interested, you can contact me for a decoder key for the three scales and the break points on the scale that indicate low, moderate and high levels of each.

Tomorrow, we start talking about how to lower the bad scores, increase the good ones and avoid burning out.


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