Beliefs and perceptions about burnout amongst mental health professionals
Protecting the wellbeing of the Australian mental health workforce has become important as demands on health services increase and resources are stretched. A number of studies show burnout to be a significant issue in this sector despite decades of research on its causes and widespread professional awareness of it. This thesis proposes an explanation for this paradox in human perceptual processes encouraging mental health professionals and managers to minimise recognition of, and response to, burnout.
So far there has been little systematic study of employees’ beliefs and perceptions concerning burnout. A review of social perception research, particularly studies of attribution theory, identified a number of human perceptual biases that can influence a person’s perception of his or her health and the need to take remedial action. These are predicted to cause mental health professionals to underestimate the risks and consequences of burnout and prevent them from acknowledging it or seeking help. Despite good objective knowledge of work stress, professionals may misperceive their own vulnerability and continue working to the point of emotional or physical exhaustion.
This study takes a phenomenological perspective, seeking to understand professionals’ perceptions and beliefs about burnout and how professional and organisational cultures influence these. Fifty-five mental health professionals responded to a survey asking open-ended questions about their beliefs, attitudes and knowledge of burnout and wellbeing at work. Twelve participants were also interviewed. Respondents were mental health nurses, psychologists, mental health occupational therapists, social workers, psychiatrists or counsellors. Responses were analysed and organised into themes using an inductive approach, linking conclusions as closely as possible to participants’ perspectives.
The findings show that professionals’ propensity to address symptoms of burnout is affected by their perceptions of whether managers would provide assistance, the stigma attached to burnout by colleagues or managers, and a tendency to self-blame. Their responses appear to be influenced by the perceptual biases predicted in attribution theory, along with a sense of personal self-esteem strongly tied to professional identity, stresss-induced cognitive deficits and certain values common in professional or organisational cultures. Together, these factors can reduce professionals’ ability to recognise burnout in both themselves and others.
This study contributes to the field by highlighting the role of mental health professionals’ perceptions in explaining the prevalence of burnout in organisations that have the professional resources to avoid it. Common biases in the perception of self or others can cause professionals to downplay their symptoms or use self-blame as an excuse to avoid seeking help while continuing to practice to the detriment of their health, clients and organisation. Organisational cultures and management practices may consciously or unconsciously reinforce these tendencies, along with stigma from colleagues and professional cultures.
The findings suggest that the mental health sector should move beyond the pervasive view of burnout as primarily a problem that frontline professionals themselves should detect and respond to. Supervisors and colleagues should work together as a professional community or team, supporting members when they can no longer support themselves. This requires managers, professionals, training institutions and professional bodies to better understand how burnout is created or exacerbated by common human perceptual processes.