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Prof. Babakus Publishes Study of Burnout of Frontline Service Employees

Prof. Babakus Publishes Study of Burnout of Frontline Service Employees

Emin BabakusDr. Emin Babakus, First Tennessee Professor of Marketing in the Fogelman College, has published a study of burnout among frontline service employees.  The reference is:

Babakus, Emin, Ugur Yavas, and Nicholas J. Ashill (2009), "The Role of Customer Orientation as a Moderator of the Job Demand–Burnout–Performance Relationship: A Surface-Level Trait Perspective," Journal of Retailing, 85 (4), 480–492.

Executive summary

Because of their boundary-spanning roles, frontline employees play a crucial role in service delivery and building relationships with customers. However, while meeting discerning customers’ service excellence demands on one hand, and management’s productivity and performance requirements on the other hand, frontline employees are frequently caught in the middle. As a result, experiencing internal and external interfaces on a regular basis, frontline employees often suffer from burnout, which is a form of psychological strain resulting from chronic work stress.

In this study, by drawing from role theory, stress and burnout literatures and the literature examining service behavior, we develop a model and test specific hypotheses regarding the mediating role of burnout between job characteristics (job demands and job resources) and job outcomes (job performance and turnover intentions). More importantly, we incorporate customer orientation (CO) as a surface-level personality trait into our model and contend that, in addition to having direct relationships with burnout, job performance and turnover intentions, CO also serves as an antidote to the detrimental effects of job demands on burnout, job performance and turnover intentions.

We use data obtained from frontline bank employees in New Zealand to test our model. Our results show that burnout mediates the effects of job demands and job resources on job performance and turnover intentions. Besides being directly related to burnout and job performance, CO also buffers the dysfunctional effects of job demands on burnout and job outcomes. Our research makes significant theoretical and substantive contributions to the services literature in two primary ways. First, we provide additional insights regarding the nature of the effects of job demands and job resources on burnout and job outcomes. Second, by attributing the weak role personality variables play in explaining burnout to the nature of the basic personality traits used in prior studies, we conceptually incorporate CO as a surface-level trait in our model and empirically demonstrate its direct and moderating roles in the frontline employee burnout process.

The study provides several useful insights regarding the management of frontline employee burnout and undesirable job outcomes. First, while job demands (hindrance-stressors) are primarily responsible for burnout that leads to negative job outcomes, the nature of frontline jobs may limit management actions for improvement in job demands. Instead, management may attempt to change frontline employees’ perceptions of job demands and concurrently make improvements in job resources (e.g., increased supervisory support). Such efforts can initiate a reappraisal of some job demands as challenge-stressors. Reappraisals of job demands as challenge-stressors may result in feelings of pride in one’s work, and consequently lead to better performance.

Second, because CO plays a more critical role in reducing burnout and the dysfunctional effects of job demands relative to job resources, in the recruitment and selection of frontline employees, management should assess candidates’ CO levels and hire those with higher CO for frontline positions. Third, while CO is an enduring disposition, it may be possible, through proper interventions, to train frontline employees to 'learn' customer-oriented behaviors. Such interventions, combined with a careful matching of frontline employees with higher CO as mentors to those with lower CO, may provide additional benefits. Frontline employees with higher CO will be more satisfied and committed as a result of increased interpersonal contact, while lower customer-oriented employees can develop coping skills and perform better.

Fourth, management should also take steps to help employees with lower CO recharge their self-control strength by giving them enough time away from customers. This may lead to relatively effortless, semiautomatic habitual acting on their part consistent with display rules we explain in our study. As a result, employees with lower CO may begin feeling less stress and burnout since they no longer have to consume as much resources for self-regulation. Fifth, just as negative feelings from burned out employees can be contagious, positive affect emanating from employees with higher CO can also be contagious. Because people are 'emotion conductors', management should proactively create a supportive, cohesive work environment where highly customer-oriented employees can serve as role models to their low CO counterparts and fuel them to perform better as part of a group. In the final section of our article, we articulate directions for future research and, among others, call for alternative approaches to the measurement of CO construct (e.g., ‘conditional reasoning’ methodology) to deal with the problem of inflated CO scores due to social desirability bias.


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