Personality helps determine response

First in a two-part series on job burnout

PULLMAN – Neuroticism may be a major predictor of employee burnout, while conscientiousness is key to job engagement. So concludes a recent study by Hyun Jeong (Jenny) Kim, associate professor in the School of Hospitality Business Management.
 
For researchers in the fields of hospitality and tourism, these findings provide some of the first glimpses into how personality traits influence the susceptibility of hotel and restaurant workers to burnout.
 
The hospitality industry — with its round-the-clock customer service demands — depends on employees who must perform their jobs in a frequently stressful environment. Though psychologists have long recognized that people respond to stress in different ways, little research has been done in the hospitality field correlating personality traits with burnout. Most studies focused instead on factors in the work environment such as organizational structure and job characteristics.
 
Following the lead of researchers in other service industries, Kim used the Big Five personality scale to compare the characteristics of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness-to-experience to rates of job burnout and engagement. Kim’s work suggests that engagement — once thought to be on the opposite end of the burnout spectrum — may instead be a separate concept.
 

Conscientiousness
In 2006, Kim sent surveys to Subway restaurant employees ages 16-57 throughout the Northwest. In addition to the Big Five personality test, her survey included questions to measure burnout (exhaustion, cynicism and lack of professional efficacy) and engagement (vigor, dedication and job absorption.)
 
Results of the study clearly tied certain personality characteristics to both conditions. As expected, neuroticism (anxiousness, depression, anger, embarrassment, worry, insecurity) was most strongly associated with burnout.  Conscientiousness (dependability and volition) emerged as the primary trait related to job engagement.
Kim believes this is the first study to examine the importance of conscientiousness in an engagement study.
 
“It only makes sense because previous researchers used conscientiousness as a gauge for job performance. It all ties together — so I am very happy with the results,” she said.
 

Faking it

Kim also studied another variable leading to burnout, called “emotional labor.” In the hospitality and service sector, employees are expected to put on a happy face for their customers in accordance with “feeling rules” or “display rules.”
 
To accomplish this, employees can respond with genuine feeling, “surface acting” or “deep acting.”  Deep actors try very hard to feel the way they are supposed to feel, she said — “to play the happy host.” Surface actors basically fake the smile.
 
“Since deep acting requires more emotional effort, I thought it would be significantly related to burnout,” said Kim. “But our findings show that surface acting was instead related more highly.”
 
She also discovered that those who scored higher on the neuroticism scale did more surface acting, while extraverted workers tended toward deep acting. It becomes a vicious cycle, she said — “neurotic workers do more surface acting which leads to more burnout.”
 

Impacts on business

 Kim’s findings may have an impact on the personality tests that service organizations routinely use when choosing compatible employees.
 
“Emotion is a very big field right now,” she said. Marketing studies show that customers who feel emotionally connected to a place or service are more likely to return.
In terms of burnout, Kim also acknowledged that the overall organizational structure of a business plays a role.
 
“It is important for employees to feel that their work is valued — and appreciated. Even happy people may become unhappy if the organization has problems,” she said.