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Keywords:

  • burnout;
  • emotional contagion;
  • intensive care;
  • nurse;
  • nursing theory

Aim.  This paper reports a study investigating whether burnout is contagious.

Background.  Burnout has been recognized as a problem in intensive care units for a long time. Previous research has focused primarily on its organizational antecedents, such as excessive workload or high patient care demands, time pressure and intensive use of sophisticated technology. The present study took a totally different perspective by hypothesizing that – in intensive care units – burnout is communicated from one nurse to another.

Methods.  A questionnaire on work and well-being was completed by 1849 intensive care unit nurses working in one of 80 intensive care units in 12 different European countries in 1994. The results are being reported now because they formed part of a larger study that was only finally analysed recently. The questionnaire was translated from English to the language of each of these countries, and then back-translated to English. Respondents indicated the prevalence of burnout among their colleagues, and completed scales to assess working conditions and job burnout.

Results.  Analysis of variance indicated that the between-unit variance on a measure of perceived burnout complaints among colleagues was statistically significant and substantially larger than the within-unit variance. This implies that there is considerable agreement (consensus) within intensive care units regarding the prevalence of burnout. In addition, the results of multilevel analyses showed that burnout complaints among colleagues in intensive care units made a statistically significant and unique contribution to explaining variance in individual nurses’ and whole units’ experiences of burnout, i.e. emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment. Moreover, for both emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, perceived burnout complaints among colleagues was the most important predictor of burnout at the individual and unit levels, even after controlling for the impact of well-known organizational stressors as conceptualized in the demand-control model.

Conclusion.  Burnout is contagious: it may cross over from one nurse to another.