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Personality and Individual Dierences 29 (2000) 255263

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Optimism and risk for job burnout among working college


students: stress as a mediator
Edward C. Chang a,*, Kevin L. Rand b, Daniel R. Strunk b
a

Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA


Department of Psychology, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, KY 41099, USA

Received 7 December 1998; received in revised form 1 June 1999; accepted 17 August 1999

Abstract
Previous research shows that optimism is related to psychological and physical adjustment, but has
yet to examine optimism's relation to risk for job burnout. This study examined the relationship
between optimism and risk for job burnout in 225 working college students while also examining stress
as a mediator. Results showed that optimism and stress were signicantly correlated with risk for job
burnout. Moreover, path-analytic results indicated that optimism remained a strong predictor of risk for
job burnout, independent of stress. Hence, stress did not fully mediate the link between optimism and
risk for job burnout. Implications for intervention and future research are discussed. 7 2000 Elsevier
Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

For more than a decade, the concept of optimism has generated a great deal of research
(Scheier & Carver, 1992). According to Scheier and Carver's (1985) model, optimism, the
generalized expectation for positive outcomes, is believed to be associated with and lead to
securing positive outcomes. Consistent with this view, studies have found optimism to be
related to greater psychological and physical adjustment (Scheier & Carver, 1985). This
relationship has been shown even after controlling for initial levels of distress. For example, in
a study of postpartum depression, Carver and Gaines (1987) found that optimism remained a
signicant predictor of depression 3 weeks after childbirth, even after controlling for initial
levels of depression. Optimism has also been shown to be an important predictor of physical
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: changec@umich.edu (E.C. Chang).
0191-8869/00/$ - see front matter 7 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 1 9 1 - 8 8 6 9 ( 9 9 ) 0 0 1 9 1 - 9

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adjustment. For example, Kamen-Siegel, Rodin, Seligman and Dwyer (1991) found optimism
to be positively correlated with the strength of the immune system. In addition, Scheier et al.
(1989) found that optimistic patients about to undergo a stressful medical procedure (viz.,
coronary artery bypass surgery) recovered faster and had fewer postoperative complications
than more pessimistic patients. Taken together, previous studies suggest that optimism is an
important predictor of both psychological and physical adjustment.
One important index of adjustment among working individuals is risk for job burnout
(Maslach & Jackson, 1981). According to Maslach, Jackson and Leiter (1996) there appear to
be three relatively distinct dimensions of risk for job burnout: Emotional Exhaustion, Job
Cynicism and Professional Ecacy. Results of studies using the Maslach Job Burnout
Inventory (MBI; Maslach et al., 1996) have shown that scores indicative of risk for burnout
are associated with greater physical symptoms, such as physical exhaustion (see Jackson &
Maslach, 1982; Maslach & Jackson, 1981), gallbladder disorders and cardiovascular disorders
(Belcastro, 1982). Higher scores on the Exhaustion Scale have also been found to be associated
with workers taking more breaks, greater expressions of emotional depletion and more
complaints to one's family (Maslach & Jackson, 1981; Jackson & Maslach, 1982). Higher
scores on the Cynicism Scale have been found to be related to greater absenteeism, emotional
depletion and complaints made to coworkers (Maslach & Jackson, 1981). Relatedly, marital
satisfaction has been found to be negatively correlated with depersonalization (cynicism) and
lack of personal accomplishment (the opposite of professional ecacy; Jackson & Maslach,
1982). Hence, scores on the MBI appear to be an important and useful marker of adjustment
among workers. However, despite numerous studies examining optimism's inuence on
important indices of adjustment, there has been no research directly examining its inuence on
risk for job burnout.

1. Stress as a mediator
As noted above, optimism may be an important predictor of risk for job burnout. Consistent
with this notion, researchers have recognized that revamping the work place is a limited
solution to the problem of job burnout (Hackman & Oldham, 1974). Risk for job burnout may
be largely a function of individual dierences in workers' dispositional characteristics (e.g.
optimism). However, there may be other variables that are important to consider in
understanding optimism's inuence on risk for job burnout. One variable of particular interest
is stress. Specically, there is reason to believe that optimism may exert an inuence on risk for
job burnout through stress. For example, optimism has been negatively associated with stress,
including environmental stress (e.g. Chang, D'Zurilla & Maydeu-Olivares, 1994). Hence,
optimism or the expectation of positive outcomes might lead to experiencing less stress. In
turn, research has also shown that stress is associated with symptoms of job burnout (e.g.
absenteeism) suggesting that less stressed individuals may experience less risk for job burnout.
In fact, stress is viewed by some researchers as the major predictor of job burnout (see
Maslach et al., 1996). Hence, optimism may have a direct inuence on risk for job burnout,
but it may also have an indirect inuence through stress.

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257

2. Goals and hypotheses


Given the above concerns, the purpose of the present study was two-fold. First, we wanted
to examine the nomological network between optimism, stress and risk for job burnout.
Second, we wanted to examine the mediational role of stress on the relations between optimism
and risk for job burnout.
Based on previous research and theory, we predicted that optimism would be associated with
reduced risk for job burnout (viz., less emotional exhaustion and job cynicism, but greater
professional ecacy). Moreover, we expected that optimism would be inversely related to
stress. We also expected stress to be associated with heightened risk for job burnout. Although
we expected that optimism would exert a signicant inuence on risk for job burnout, we also
expected that much, if not all of its inuence would be mediated by stress based on the model
presented by Maslach et al. (1996).

3. Method
3.1. Participants
Two hundred and thirty-three (61 men and 172 women) working college students were
recruited from Northern Kentucky University. In order to participate in the present study,
students had to indicate that they ``regularly worked at least 1015 hours a week at their job''.
This selection criterion was based on ndings of previous pilot studies that most students
worked between 10 and 15 h per week. Participants were predominantly white (91.7%). All
participants were enrolled in an upperdivision psychology course and fullled a course
requirement or obtained extra credit for participating. Ages ranged from 17 to 52 years, with a
mean age of 22.9 years. Men and women were not found to dier signicantly in age.
3.2. Measures
3.2.1. Optimism
The revised Life Orientation Test (LOT-R; Scheier, Carver & Bridges, 1994) is a 6-item
measure (plus 4 ller items) of individual dierences in dispositional optimismpessimism (e.g.
``In uncertain times, I usually expect the best''). Participants are asked to respond to these
items using a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree).
The LOT-R is a brief modied version of the original LOT (Scheier & Carver, 1985) and has
been found to correlate 0.95 with the latter (see Scheier et al., 1994).
3.2.2. Stress
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS; Cohen, Kamarck & Mermelstein, 1983) is a 14-item
measure of self-appraised stress (e.g. ``In the last month how often have you been upset
because of something that happened unexpectedly?''). Respondents are asked to rate the
frequency of items across a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 0 (never) to 4 (very often).

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Higher scores reect greater perceived stress in the last month. For the present study, we used
the shortened 4-item version (Cohen et al., 1983).
It is important to note that prior to the development of the PSS, popular measures of stress
focused on assessing the impact of specic stressful life events (e.g. Dohrenwend, Krasno,
Askenasy & Dohrenwend, 1978; Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer & Lazarus, 1981; Sarason, Johnson
& Siegel, 1978). The most popular of these instruments has been Holmes and Rahe's (1967)
Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), which measures the impact of a number of dierent
life events. Following increasing criticisms of this scale, Cohen et al. (1983) argued that
measures of life stress based on a list of specic life events include an insensitivity to chronic
stress from ongoing life circumstances, to stress from events occurring in the lives of close
friends and family, from expectations concerning future events, and from events not listed on
the scale (p. 387; see also, Cohen, 1986; Hammen, 1992; Redeld & Stone, 1979). As a partial
remedy to these limitations, Cohen and associates (Cohen, 1986; Cohen et al., 1983) developed
the PSS, which assesses the extent to which respondents found their lives unpredictable,
uncontrollable and overloading. In contrast to measures like the SRRS, the PSS does not
constrain respondents to a specic list of stressors.

3.2.3. Risk for Job Burnout


Risk for job burnout was measured by the General Form of the Maslach Burnout Inventory
(MBI-GS; Maslach et al., 1996). The MBI-GS is a 22-item measure which assesses for three
relatively distinct dimensions associated with job burnout in a general working population. The
Exhaustion Scale measures the depletion of emotional energy (e.g. ``I feel emotionally drained
from my work''). The Cynicism Scale measures indierence or distance in one's attitude toward
work (e.g. ``I have become less interested in my work since I started this job''). The
Professional Ecacy Scale measures an individual's expectations of continued eectiveness at
work (e.g. ``I can eectively solve the problems that arise in my work''). Respondents are asked
to rate the extent to which each item occurred in relation to their job across a 7-point Likerttype scale ranging from 0 (never) to 6 (every day). Studies employing dierent versions of the
MBI have found good support for their validity (see Maslach et al., 1996).

3.3. Procedure
All study measures were administered to all 233 participants in the form of a take home
survey and were to be returned the next day of class. The responses provided by eight
participants were dropped from the study because they were either incomplete or not returned
on time. Hence, the responses provided by the remaining 225 participants were used.
Participants were not made aware of the purpose of the study until after they had completed
all measures. To protect the participants' anonymity, only participant numbers were placed on
the instruments. In addition, all participants signed separate consent forms that indicated that
all test data would be kept strictly condential.

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259

4. Results
Correlations between all study measures, means, standard deviations and reliability estimates
are presented in Table 1. As the table shows, all correlations were signicant. As expected,
optimism was negatively associated with stress and risk for job burnout. More specically,
optimism was negatively associated with emotional exhaustion and job cynicism, but was
positively associated with professional ecacy. Stress was also found to be signicantly related
to risk for job burnout as measured by the MBI. As expected, stress was associated with
greater expressions of emotional exhaustion and job cynicism, but was associated with lower
professional ecacy.
The result of conducting a path analysis examining the inuence of optimism on risk for job
burnout with stress as a mediator is presented in Fig. 1. Consistent with the above
correlational results, optimism exerted signicant direct inuences on emotional exhaustion, job
cynicism and professional ecacy. Optimism also exerted an indirect inuence (through stress)
on emotional exhaustion and job cynicism. In contrast, stress was found to exert a direct
inuence on emotional exhaustion and job cynicism, but had no direct inuence on
professional ecacy.
It is worth noting that the inclusion of stress as a potential mediator only resulted in a small
decrease in optimism's inuence on emotional exhaustion Db 0:09), job cynicism
Db 0:08), and professional ecacy Db 0:04). Thus, evidence for complete mediation was
not found (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Moreover, as the gure shows, optimism is as strong or
stronger than stress in predicting each of the dimensions of risk for job burnout.
5. Discussion
This study was conducted to examine the relation between optimism, stress and risk for job
burnout. As noted earlier, previous studies examining the link between optimism and levels of
adjustment have often employed psychological or physical adjustment measures (e.g. depressive

Table 1
Correlations between all study measuresa. p < 0.05,

Optimism
Perceived Stress
MBI-Exhaustion
MBI-Cynicism
MBI-Ecacy
M
S.D.
a
a



p < 0.001

Optimism

Perceived stress

MBI-Exhaustion

MBI-Cynicism

MBI-Ecacy

0.41
0.32
0.35
0.35
21.29
4.71
0.79

0.33
0.30
0.24
11.77
2.18
0.90

0.66
0.15
15.21
7.43
0.62

0.30
12.71
7.96
0.62

28.93
6.08
0.65

N 225: MBI=Maslach Burnout Inventory.

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E.C. Chang et al. / Personality and Individual Dierences 29 (2000) 255263

symptoms and physical symptoms). The present study found a signicant association between
optimism and each of the three dimensions of risk for job burnout assessed by the MBI.
Specically, optimism was found to be negatively correlated with scores on the Exhaustion
Scale and the Cynicism Scale of the MBI among working college students. This suggests that
more optimistic workers are likely to feel less emotional exhaustion from their jobs and less
cynical about their job goals. In contrast, optimism was positively correlated with scores on the
Professional Ecacy Scale in the present sample, suggesting that more optimistic workers
might feel they have more control and inuence on what happens at work. Taken together, this
pattern of ndings suggests that greater optimism is associated with less risk to job burnout.
This is consistent with previous studies showing that optimism is associated with better
adjustment (e.g. Chang, 1998; Scheier & Carver, 1985,.1992).
Consistent with expectations, optimism was found to be negatively related to stress. This
suggests that the more optimistic workers are, the less stress they are likely to experience.
Stress was also found to be signicantly associated with risk for job burnout (Maslach et al.,
1996). Specically, stress was related to higher emotional exhaustion, higher job cynicism and
lower professional ecacy. Noteworthy, workers who score high in stress exhibit the
fundamental characteristics of a burned out worker (i.e. high emotional exhaustion, high job
cynicism and low professional ecacy).
According to Maslach et al. (1996), stress combined with a lack of resources leads to
burnout, which in turn has tangible costs (e.g. absenteeism, turnover and physical illness).
Interestingly, in examining the potential mediational role of stress on optimism and risk for job
burnout, the present study found that Maslach's model of burnout may not be complete. That
is, results from our path analysis suggest that optimism exerts direct and indirect inuences
(through stress) on risk for job burnout. The inclusion of stress as a potential mediator, while
resulting in small drops in the magnitude of optimism's inuence on risk for job burnout, did

Fig. 1. A path-analytic model involving optimism, stress and risk for job burnout. Numbers within parentheses refer
to simple correlations. Numbers outside parentheses refer to standardized path coecients. p < 0.01. p < 0.001.

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261

not eliminate its inuence. In fact, optimism remained the strongest predictor of two of the
three dimensions of risk to job burnout (viz., job cynicism and professional ecacy), and as
strong a predictor as stress for the other dimension (viz., emotional exhaustion). Moreover,
evidence for full mediation was not found (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Hence, despite the popular
emphasis on altering the work environment (Maslach et al., 1996), the present ndings strongly
suggest that individual dierences variables like optimism may be more inuential in abating
or promoting risk for job burnout.
These ndings have several important implications for developing interventions with clients
who are at risk for job burnout. Specically, the present ndings suggest that increasing
optimism in workers may decrease their overall risk for job burnout. Moreover, by promoting
more positive outcome expectancies, one may be able lower emotional exhaustion and job
cynicism while increasing workers' sense of professional ecacy.
In that regard, there are several practical methods for increasing a worker's optimism. For
example, workers could be encouraged to practice modifying pessimistic expectancies into more
optimistic ones (Beck, Rush, Shaw & Emery, 1979). With practice, people will become more
adept at perceiving the world in an optimistic framework. It is likely that several cognitive
techniques could be custom tailored to help increase resistance to job burnout. Specically,
pessimistic thoughts about the lack of success at work could be challenged with concrete
armations of job accomplishments (e.g., merit awards). Given the present study's ndings, it
appears that this may help to increase a worker's sense of professional ecacy while reducing
their job cynicism and work-related emotional exhaustion.
However, the present ndings also suggest that increasing optimism in workers may reduce
the risk for job burnout indirectly by reducing the experience of stress. This in turn may lower
the experience of emotional exhaustion and cynicism while increasing feelings of professional
ecacy. Overall, the present study suggests that interventions intended to lower the risk for job
burnout may be more eective if they concentrate on increasing workers' optimism rather than
merely decreasing environmental stressors. However, care should be taken to ensure potentially
hazardous environmental factors are not overlooked.

6. Limitations and future research


It is important to note several limitations of the present study. First, the sample was
overwhelmingly White. Because studies have shown that individual-dierences variables such as
optimismpessimism vary across cultures (see Chang, 1996), the generalizability of the present
ndings can be called into question. Relatedly, the sample was a working college population.
Hence, the results may not generalize to a more general working population. For example,
students' jobs or socioeconomic status may not be representative of the jobs or socioeconomic
status of other groups. This is important in that stress has been shown to aect people
dierently across classes and job types (see Holt, 1982). Second, this study is also limited by its
cross-sectional design. Future research should examine the relations between optimism, stress
and risk to job burnout across time to address issues of causality. In addition, future research
should include other predictor variables (e.g., neuroticism) and other potential mediators (e.g.,
appraisals and coping). Because Scheier, Weintraub and Carver (1986; see also Chang, 1998)

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found that optimism as measured by the LOT was signicantly associated with a number of
dierent coping activities, and Leiter (1990, 1991) found that burnout itself is related to coping
styles, appraisals and coping should be included in future models of job burnout in order to
gain a more complete picture of the antecedents of risk for job burnout.
One nal note, this study conceptualized optimism and pessimism as occurring at opposite
ends along a singular dimension, rather than as being partially independent constructs. Some
studies have found evidence that the present approach may not always be valid (see Chang et
al., 1994; Chang, Maydeu-Olivares & D'Zurilla, 1997). However, we found no signicant
dierence in analyzing optimism and pessimism as separate constructs in relation to stress and
risk to job burnout in the present sample. Clearly, additional research is needed to determine
the extent to which a one dimensional model might not be as appropriate as a two dimensional
model.
7. Conclusion
This study examined the relationship between optimism, stress and risk for job burnout.
Optimism was found to be an important predictor of risk for job burnout, even after
controlling for the mediating inuence of stress. Overall, this study provided an important
integration of previous research on optimism, stress and risk for job burnout, and a rst step
to understanding the link between optimism and risk for job burnout among workers.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to thank Ken Benning for his helpful feedback on an earlier version
of this article.
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