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What drives auditor burnout? Research shows it’s a ‘misfit’

​​​​​man sitting in front of his laptop (iStock)

​Nurses, teachers and auditors have a lot in common: their professions face high rates of burnout. 

Bright Yue Hong, an assistant professor ​in the School of Accountancy and MIS, clarifies five misconceptions about burnout and identifies a new cause of burnout: "a misfit." This refers to the gap between what employees need and what employers provide. Hong and her coauthors find that this gap drives rapid burnout in early career auditors at large firms, in addition to well-known drivers such as workload. Their findings may be of use to those in other high-pressure professions. 

In this Q&A, Hong discusses her research, which was recently featured in the California Management Review Insights​

You and your colleagues found early career auditors frequently experience burnout, even just two years into their careers. What are the primary drivers of such rapid burnout for young professionals? 
Workload, deadline pressure, hierarchical teams and staffing shortages are among the important environmental drivers of burnout. Young professionals take on the majority of fieldwork because audit teams are hierarchical. Workloads are high, typically 60 or more hours per week during busy season to meet deadlines, and auditors can have multiple busy seasons in a year. Staffing shortages exacerbate all the job demands: teams are doing more with fewer people. 

Your research finds "needs-supplies misfit" is driving burnout. What does that mean? 
"Needs-supplies misfit" is the mismatch between what employees need, want or prefer and what employers provide or supply. For example, if employees want a flexible schedule but employers do not provide one, a mismatch occurs. What we find is a mismatch between employees' preferred and perceived amount of structure in the tasks they do predicts burnout.​ This mismatch captures how employees feel about the way they are being treated by employers, and it plays a critical role in explaining employees' burnout experiences. Although workloads also increase burnout, it's really that match that helps explain employees' feelings about their employers. 

How can communicating about this fit help address burnout? 
The "needs-supply" fit is crucial to addressing burnout. Organizations that prioritize open communication can take steps to redesign jobs and workplaces to better accommodate employee needs and enhance the perceived fit. It's crucial to understand employee needs regarding factors like workload, structure, control over work and desired recognition. 

What are common misconceptions about burnout? 
Burnout is a state of chronic stress characterized by three key dimensions: emotional exhaustion, cynicism or detachment from work and a reduced sense of professional accomplishment. Common misconceptions of burnout include that it either exists or does not exist and that burnout is limited to overworked veterans. But research reveals a more nuanced picture that burnout exists on a spectrum, with varying combinations of exhaustion, cynicism and lack of feeling valued. Importantly, workload is not the only cause of burnout. ​​

How should organizations assess individual preferences for structure? Are there particular assessment techniques you would recommend?
This can be as simple as asking employees what types of tasks, projects or clients they like to work on and giving employees options to choose from, as opposed to assigning tasks, projects or clients without learning employees' preferences. Regarding task structure, employers can ask, “Do you like to work with problems that don't have an obvious correct answer?" Supervisors also must realize that employees' preferences can change, so they should circle back and ask if employees prefer more or less structure in assigned work and ​be open about other types of work they are interested in. 

What's next for this area of research? 
Reducing the misfit between what employees need and what employers provide helps mitigate burnout. This idea should apply to both prevention and recovery, but future research should find out if that is the case.​