Goals Up, Burnout Bown

Georgia Pomaki: when a person’s goals are positive, they will spiral up - photo by Martin Dee
Georgia Pomaki: when a person’s goals are positive, they will spiral up – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 3 | Mar. 6, 2008

By Lorraine Chan

Study of Dutch Healthcare Workers
Links Wellbeing to Goal Setting

People working in jobs with a high burnout rate share one thing in common. If they feel supported and see opportunities to grow and improve, they’ll likely thrive.

But the moment workers believe their best hope is to keep their heads above water, they put themselves at increased risk for depression, exhaustion, burnout and absenteeism, according to UBC psychology research.

“Goals play a key role in predicting physical and psychological wellbeing,” says Georgia Pomaki, a postdoctoral fellow in the Dept. of Psychology. She is among a handful of scholars worldwide looking at the mobilizing power of a person’s desires and dreams on work life.

Pomaki studies how people cope when working in the toughest jobs — those with high demand, but low control and low support. She has found that goals are a key indicator whether a person will flourish or fade under pressure.

“When a person’s goals are positive they will spiral up, but when they’re focusing on just surviving, they will spiral down,” says Pomaki, who’s also an investigator at the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

In spiraling downward, explains Pomaki, individuals increase their risk of depression and physical symptoms such as back pain and headaches.

She recently explored the pursuit and attainment of goals among nurses and doctors in Leiden, Holland, conducting studies at a major teaching hospital that employs 3,500 healthcare workers.

Her research included 175 doctors, half of whom had been working at the hospital for more than five years. Pomaki found that 68 per cent of the doctors described their goals in positive terms. These included better care for patients, securing a raise, publishing more papers and maintaining a balance between their professional and home life.

Pomaki says because these doctors were able to look forward to new opportunities, they experienced higher rates of well-being and were at lower risk for depression and physical ailments.

More pessimistic were 32 per cent of the doctors who framed their goals in avoidance terms. “For them, it was much more about minimizing harm to themselves because of perceived time pressures and responsibilities.”

These doctors reported more health complaints — an unsurprising outcome, says Pomaki, given the links between chronic stress and irregular production of coritsol, a stress hormone.

“Too much or too little cortisol can result in a compromised immune functioning.”

Pomaki’s study at the Dutch hospital included 1,400 nurses. Her findings show that two-thirds of the nurses were fairly optimistic, setting their sights on future promotions or taking courses to upgrade their skills and performance.

However, 17 per cent of the nurses focused on “avoidance goals,” namely the desire to work fewer hours and to protect themselves from utter physical and mental exhaustion. For the most part, these nurses had poorer health than their peers with the more positive goals.

Pomaki says that while hospital administrators may feel heartened that greater than fewer numbers of nurses and doctors are optimists, her findings point to systemic issues that need to be addressed to increase employee health.

“But unfortunately,” she acknowledges, “the usual practice is for management not to deal with processes until there’s a major problem.”

Georgia Pomaki: when a person’s goals are positive, they will spiral up.