• burnout;
  • emotional exhaustion;
  • nurses;
  • nursing;
  • social capital;
  • workload

Aims.  The aim of this study is to examine the relationship between a hospital’s social capital, individual decision latitude, workload and emotional exhaustion in nurses, controlling for age, sex, years of professional experience and job tenure.

Background.  In western countries between 15–45% of nurses working in hospitals suffer from burnout, characterised by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and decreased personal performance. The prevention of burnout constitutes a great challenge to those responsible for the health care system, not least because burnout may cause increasing turnover rates in nurses and lead to medical mistakes.

Design.  Survey.

Method.  A questionnaire was mailed to 1325 nurses working at four hospitals in east and west Germany in 2002. Nine hundred and fifty nine nurses responded (response rate: 72·4%).

Results.  Logistic regression identified three significant predictors of emotional exhaustion in nurses: workload (OR: 4·523, CI: 3·230–6·333) was positively associated with emotional exhaustion. Decision latitude (OR: 0·376, CI: 0·254–0·557) and social capital in the hospitals (OR: 0·549, CI: 0·403–0·746) were negatively associated with emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion was not affected by age, sex, years of professional experience and job tenure. Nagelkerke′s Pseudo R2 was 0·225.

Conclusions.  The findings underline the importance of social capital and organisational development in hospital management.

Relevance to clinical practice.  Efforts to create a good working atmosphere with readiness to provide mutual support and the pursuit of joint values in a hospital, the reduction of workload and increased decision latitude may prevent the development of emotional exhaustion in nurses.