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S P E C I A L    F O C U S

Professional Burnout

A study explores the level of burnout in the park and recreation profession
and shares ideas for reducing stress in the workplace


Summer 'tis the season of stress in the park and recreation field. It's when professionals are faced with such a high workload and pressure situations—from soliciting volunteer coaches for soccer and softball and educating parents on the value of sportsmanship to hiring and training lifeguards and day camp staff and securing entertainment for special events. It's our busiest season and, boy, do we feel burned out! Or do we?

Burned out woman

Various "helping" related professions such as nursing, teaching and social work, have been the focus of research on burnout, but little has been conducted in the field of recreation. To discover whether park and recreation professionals are suffering from burnout, a research study was conducted through Aurora University. The study used the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to assess the levels of burnout. The MBI is a 22-item measure of perceived burnout in the human services profession and was developed by Christina Maslach, a pioneer in the study of burnout. Maslach is credited with the formation of one of the most widely used definitions of burnout: "a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do people-work of some kind."

Oftentimes it is the young, idealistic professional—
who is ready to "tame the world"—who becomes
crippled by the negative effects of burnout.

For the survey, it was determined that three professional interest sections of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA) would be surveyed. The sections chosen (Recreation, Facility Management and Therapeutic) represent personnel who typically have the most contact with the public. A total of 515 professionals were randomly selected from the IPRA membership lists for these sections. Of these, 334 usable surveys were returned, resulting in a nearly 65 percent return rate used to report the findings.

Ultimately, the survey revealed that park and recreation professionals in the state of Illinois suffer only from moderate to low levels of burnout. See the survey results on page 28 for specific scores and interpretations, based on the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Effects of Burnout in the Workplace

Although the composite data indicates low to moderate levels of perceived burnout for the professional overall, individual responses in the survey indicated that there are a number of recreation professionals who are suffering from high levels of burnout. This is a concern. High levels of burnout can be costly to an organization. It results in negative behavior such as poor work perfor-

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S P E C I A L    F O C U S

Survey Results Using the Maslach Burnout Inventory

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is divided into three "sub-scales," which independently measure levels of burnout. The three sub-scales are "emotional exhaustion," "depersonalization" and "personal accomplishment." Burnout is a multidimensional construct, therefore the sub-scales are not combined to reveal one ultimate burnout score. Because burnout is viewed on a continuum, the MBI measures levels of burnout as either high, moderate or low for each of the three sub-scales. For both the emotional exhaustion and depersonalization sub-scales, higher mean scores correspond to higher degrees of perceived burnout. Conversely, lower mean scores on the personal accomplishment sub-scale, corresponds to higher degrees of perceived burnout. The table below indicates the various levels of perceived burnout for each sub-scale as well as results from the survey of park and recreation professionals.

Range of Scores Indicating Levels of Burnout by Sub-scale




Emotional Exhaustion








Personal Accomplishment




A total of 515 professionals randomly were selected from the membership list of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA) to participate in the survey. A total of 334 usable surveys (nearly 65 percent) were used to report the findings. Of these, 156 were from IPRA's Recreation Section, 82 were from the Therapeutic Section, and 98 were from the Facility Management Section.

Comparison of Normative Data to Results of Survey By the Total Sample and by Each Section





Total Sample (334)

Emotional Exhaustion












Personal Achievement






*The normative scores are "reproduced by special permission of the Publisher, Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., Palo Alto, CA 94303 from MBI-Human Services Survey by Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson. Copyright 1996 by Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Further reproduction is prohibited without the publisher's written consent."

The table above indicates that all of the mean scores for this survey fell below the normative scores. However, the scores were very close to the normative scores indicating that recreation professionals in the state of Illinois experience levels of burnout very similar to other helping professions. A comparison of the scores in this table to those in the previous table, shows the level of perceived burnout each section reports for each sub-scale.

More specifically, the following table clearly illustrates the number of respondents at each level of burnout for each of the three sub-scales. This information shows that the majority of respondents indicated that they experienced low or moderate levels of perceived burnout.

Level of Burnout by Sub-scale for the Entire Sample (334)

LOW (%)

MOD (%)

HIGH (%)

Emotional Exhaustion

152 (45.51)

109 (32.63)

73 (21.86)


192 (57.49)

96 (28.74)

46 (13.77)

Personal Achievement

153 (45.81)

106 (31.74)

75 (22.46)

- Sue A. Micklevitz, CPRP

26 | Illinois Parks and Recreation

P R O F E S S I O N A L    B U R N O U T

mance, stress-related illnesses, absenteeism and even job departure. This translates to poor customer service and the loss of potentially successful professionals who may choose less stressful careers.

This study should act as a caution regarding the professionals who are currently suffering from high levels of perceived burnout. If something is not done to intervene, these professionals may take part in the negative behaviors described above. Ultimately, the profession may experience the loss of quality professionals to other careers.

Symptoms and Causes of Burnout

Before steps can be taken to intervene against this debilitating syndrome, it is important to understand its symptoms and causes. According to Maslach, professionals suffering from burnout display symptoms related to the three sub-scales other burnout instrument, the MBI. Therefore, employees suffering from burnout may feel a combination of one or all of the following: emotionally exhausted, which refers to employees feeling overextended; depersonalizarion, which refers to employees who show impersonal responses toward their customers; and personal accomplishment, which refers to employees who feel they have little or no feelings about accomplishments in their job. A few symptoms associated with these three constructs include fatigue, loss of concern for clients, dissatisfaction with self-fulfillment and negative attitudes toward work.

The causes of burnout are somewhat complex and are associated with two separate factors: the work environment and the individual. A stressful work environment that offers little or no opportunity for personal growth, has an overwhelming workload, and offers little or no support, can lead to burnout. Not all stress is bad, yet burnout is not possible without stress.

Other work environment factors leading to burnout include:

• role conflict;
• ambiguity;
• autonomy;
• no opportunity to participate in decisions, and
• lack of control of one's job.

Individual personality characteristics of people at risk of suffering from burnout include:

• young idealistic professionals who have unrealistic expectations about the work situation;
• empathic people who pour too much of themselves into their jobs, and
• an individual's reaction to stress coupled with their stress-coping mechanisms.

Oftentimes it is the young idealistic professional who is ready to "tame the world," who becomes crippled by the negative effects of burnout. They may start a job armed with high levels of energy, ready to work long hours and pour themselves into their jobs. They may not yet have developed coping mechanisms that teach them to tolerate stress. As time goes by they begin to wear down, losing their energy towards their job. They become frustrated when they do not achieve their unrealistic expectations. This, in turn, may lead to apathy towards their job and eventual burnout.

Preventing Workplace Burnout

Get to know
employees to
see if any may
have the
type that would
make them
susceptible to

What can managers do to prevent the occurrence of burnout in their workplace? First, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout. Next, get to know your employees to see whether they display the individual personality characteristics described above. These characteristics may mean they are more susceptible to burnout. Lastly, promote a work environment that advocates: autonomy; positive staff interaction; opportunities for growth and employee support (especially in stressful situations).

And, always try to minimize stress as much as possible. We all know that stress is inevitable, so managers need to help staff develop their stress coping mechanisms through seminars, books and stress relief techniques.

So, now that you've rolled out the soccer balls, thrown out the softballs, filled the pools with water, prepared day camp themes, and hired the bands and clowns, be sure to check your work environment and your stress coping mechanisms. Are they all in tact?

Is your work environment the best it can be? Can you do anything to improve your work environment? Now is the time to try.

Do you know how to handle your stress? If not, read a book on it, such as 10 Minute Stress Manager by Emmett Miller, M.D. or Stress for Success by J.E. Loehr. Now it's time to take your stress check and enjoy the rest of the summer!•

is the deputy executive director for the Channahon Park District. She received a master's degree from Aurora University in 1999. This article is based on her thesis titled "A Determination of the Level of Burnout Experienced by Members of the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association." A copy of the thesis is available from Aurora University and the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association.

The author thanks the many IPRA professionals who returned the MBI survey. Your information was invaluable to our profession. The time you spent completing the survey is much appreciated and well spent. I would also like to thank The Illinois Park and Recreation Association for the grant it issued to help fund this survey.

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