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Is Physician and Nurse Burnout Contagious?

Is burnout contagious? Is it communicated from one provider to another?

Two different studies—on focusing on physicians and another on nurses—tried to answer that question and, not surprisingly, both came to same conclusion. Burnout is contagious.

In one study, a questionnaire on work and well-being was completed by 1,849 intensive care unit nurses working in 12 different European countries in 1994. Burnout was measured using several established criteria and the participants were surveyed regarding the perceived burnout complaints among colleagues, using a common measurement called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The areas measured for burnout were emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment.

What did the results show?

Nurses who reported the highest prevalence of burnout among their colleagues were also the most likely to experience high levels of burnout themselves. In addition, perceived burnout complaints among colleagues had a positive, independent impact on each of the three burnout dimensions.

In another study, researchers looked at whether burnout was contagious among physicians. For this study, the sample was 507 general practitioners in the Netherlands and they wanted to know if there existed a positive relationship between perceived burnout complaints among colleagues and emotional exhaustion.

Burnout was measured using the same Maslach Burnout Inventory format described earlier, and susceptibility to emotional contagion was measured with a scale that included 6 items, including such statements as “I cannot continue to feel O.K. if people are me are depressed” and “I tend to remain calm even though those around me worry.”

According to the researchers, the perceived burnout complaints among colleagues, and individual differences in the susceptibility to emotional contagion were positively associated with emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion, in turn, was positively associated with negative attitudes, leading to developing negative, cynical attitudes towards patients and the tendency to believe that “one is no longer effective in working with clients and in fulfilling one’s job.”

J Adv Nurs. 2005 Aug;51(3):276-87.
Burnout contagion among intensive care nurses.
Bakker AB1Le Blanc PMSchaufeli WB.
Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 82-98.
Burnout Contagion Among General Practitioners
Arnold B. Bakker1, Wilmar B. Schaufeli2, Herman J. Sixma3, Willem Bosveld4