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The role of individual, interpersonal, and organizational factors in mitigating burnout among elderly Chinese volunteers

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INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF GERIATRIC PSYCHIATRY
Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2003; 18: 795–802.
Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/gps.922
The role of individual, interpersonal, and organizational factors
in mitigating burnout among elderly Chinese volunteers
Elsie Chau-wai Yan and Catherine So-kum Tang*
Department of Psychology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
SUMMARY
Objective This study examined the role of individual, interpersonal, and organizational factors in mitigating burnout
among elderly Chinese volunteers in Hong Kong.
Methods A total of 295 elderly Chinese volunteers were individually interviewed on their demographic characteristics,
voluntary service experience, physical health status, general self-efficacy, social support, satisfaction and perceived benefit
from volunteer work, and burnout symptoms. Exploratory factor analysis was first performed to determine the underlying
dimensions of burnout experience. Correlation analyses were then conducted to explore associations among major variables.
Hierarchical regression analyses were also performed to unearth the relative contribution of various factors in predicting
burnout among elderly volunteers.
Results A two-factor structure of burnout, namely lack of personal accomplishment and emotional depletion, was found.
Demographics, individual, interpersonal, and organizational factors were significant predictors of lack of personal accomplishment. In particular, personal accomplishment was best predicted by a long duration of voluntary work service and high
levels of self-efficacy, work satisfaction, and perceived benefit. For emotional depletion, only demographics and individual
factors were significant predictors. A low level of emotional depletion was best predicted by older age, a short duration of
voluntary work experience, and good health.
Conclusions Burnout experience was evident among elderly Chinese volunteers. There were different predictors of affective and cognitive components of burnout. Findings have significant implications to attenuate burnout symptoms among
elderly volunteers. Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
key words — elderly volunteer burnout; Chinese elderly volunteers; Chinese elderly burnout
With improved nutrition and advancement in medical
care, elderly people are now not only living longer but
also remain healthy and capable. They thus constitute
a substantial pool of voluntary workers for non-profit
social service organizations. The rate of elderly
volunteering is expected to continue to rise as a result
of changing demographics alongside the active promotion of local and national governments (Chambre,
1993; Chong, 1993). Similar to paid workers, elderly
volunteers are also vulnerable to work stress and
burnout which may have adverse impacts on their
mental health as well as disruption of service to their
* Correspondence to: Professor C. S-K. Tang, Department of
Psychology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, NT,
Hong Kong. Tel: 852-26096503. Fax: 852-26035019.
E-mail: ctang@cuhk.edu.hk
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
clients. With global aging, the role of elderly volunteers will become even more important. Thus, various
negative aspects of volunteering are in need of attention to facilitate the contribution of elderly volunteers
in ways that benefit themselves as well as those
receiving their services. This study aimed to unearth
various factors associated with burnout among elderly
volunteers.
Volunteerism and burnout
Burnout is often defined as a syndrome of emotional
exhaustion, a sense of lack of personal achievement,
and being cynical and callous toward one’s work
(Maslach et al., 1996). It is related to reduced physical
and mental well-being among employed human
service professionals (Burke and Greenglass, 1995;
Received 16 January 2002
Accepted 20 May 2003
796
e. chau-wai yan and c. so-kum tang
Tang et al., 2001), and is also the main reason
why volunteers terminate their service (Cyr and
Dowrick, 1991; Ross et al., 1999; Yiu et al., 2001).
The following sections focus on aspects of individual, interpersonal, and organizational factors that
are of particular relevance to burnout among elderly
volunteers.
For individual factors, symptoms such as dizziness,
pain, and fatigue associated with various chronic
medical conditions may affect elderly volunteers’
performance in the course of their voluntary work.
They may be easily exhausted and perceive themselves as incompetent. Furthermore, elderly people
tend to have a low level of self-efficacy as compared
to other age cohorts (Wu et al., 2003). Studies have
found that individuals with low self-efficacy often
have pessimistic thoughts about accomplishment
(Bandura, 1997) and are vulnerable to experiencing
burnout at work (VanYpersen, 1998; Brouwers and
Tomic, 2000; Tang et al., 2001).
On the interpersonal level, benefits of social support against work stress and negative health outcomes
have been well documented (Vismesvaran et al.,
1999). Social support can either directly mitigate
adverse effects of stress, or moderate effects of stress
by enabling people to cope with stress more effectively. Support from coworkers and supervisors can
help manage or prevent burnout among volunteers
(Lafer, 1991; Capner and Caltabiano, 1993). However,
elderly people have been identified as a population
with a high need for support but a lack of opportunity
to obtain it (Dunkel-Schetter and Wortman, 1981).
Thus, elderly volunteers may not have adequate support to buffer against burnout experience in their
voluntary work.
Two of the most frequently cited organizational
factors in relation to burnout are dissatisfaction and
lack of reward from work. Research on paid workers
has shown that those who perceive low satisfaction
and few rewards from work tend to report mental
and burnout symptoms (Deckard et al., 1994;
Schmoldt et al., 1994; Lee and Ashforth, 1996;
Demerouti et al., 2001; Freeborn, 2001; Van der Hulst
and Geurts, 2001). As voluntary work does not have
explicit extrinsic rewards such as salary or fringe benefits, volunteers have to rely on more intrinsic rewards
or motives for becoming and continuing to act as
voluntary workers (Black and DiNitto, 1994; Omoto
and Synder, 1995). Benefits that are of particular relevance to elderly volunteers include opportunities to
learn new things, filling the vocational void left by
retirement, becoming a useful member of the society,
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
and finding a peer group (Barlow and Hainsworth,
2001). There is not yet any study examining the association between burnout and work satisfaction among
volunteers. However, Bennett et al. (1996) found that
a lack of perceived reward from work is related to
feelings of depersonalization and lack of personal
accomplishment among AIDS voluntary helpers.
Similar to other countries, elderly Chinese provide
an invaluable pool of voluntary workers. A majority
of elderly Chinese are healthy and functionally independent, and still enjoy the prestige, power, and care
in the family as prescribed by the Confucian principles of filial piety. Recently, there has been an increasing interest in recruiting elderly Chinese to local
voluntary service to enable them to continue to play
an active and productive role in the community
(Chong, 1993). In fact, traditional Chinese values
have always placed great emphasis on collectivism,
advocating that effort and contributions should be
directed toward collective good rather than toward
individual benefit (Triandis et al., 1998). Chinese cultural beliefs also espouse that individuals helping less
fortunate persons will be promised a good life after
death and the blessings of the next generation. A
recent study on young Chinese voluntary workers
has shown that satisfaction with voluntary work, integration into the voluntary organization, and absence
of burnout symptoms were all related to the expected
duration of voluntary service (Yiu et al., 2001).
Purposes of the present study
This study aimed to examine the role of individual,
interpersonal, and organizational factors in mitigating
burnout among elderly Chinese volunteers in Hong
Kong. On the individual level, it was hypothesized
that few burnout symptoms would be related to good
physical health and a sense of general self-efficacy.
On the interpersonal level, it was hypothesized that
few burnout symptoms would be related to a high
level of social support from family members and
other voluntary workers. On the organizational level,
it was hypothesized that few burnout symptoms
would be related to satisfaction and perceived benefit
from voluntary work. As various factors did not exist
alone, it was important that their shared variances
should be taken into consideration when determining
their respective contribution in understanding burnout
experience. It was further hypothesized that individual, interpersonal, and organizational factors would
remain salient factors even after controlling for their
shared variances.
Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2003; 18: 795–802.
chinese elderly volunteer burnout
METHOD
Recruitment of participants and sampling procedure
Twenty-three community centers in Hong Kong were
randomly selected from the local social service directory for elderly people. Invitation letters were sent to
administrators of these centers to invite them to refer
their elderly members to participate in a study about
the life style and health status of elderly people. Eighteen of the 23 contacted centers replied and referred
their elderly members to the study. Trained research
assistants individually interviewed the elderly people
in rooms provided by the community centers. The
purposes of the present study were first explained
and informed consent was obtained prior to the interview. These elderly people participated in the study
voluntarily and without monetary reward. A souvenir
was given to each participant as a token of appreciation. Approximately one in every ten of the referred
elderly people refused to participate in the study, with
the main reasons either being too tired or not having
time. A total of 518 elderly people completed the
interviews.
For this study, only elderly people with voluntary
work experience were included (n ¼ 335). Among
them, 36 had less than one year of experience and
were excluded from subsequent analyses as they
may not have had enough exposure to voluntary work.
Furthermore, four elderly people had more than 50
years of voluntary work experience and they were
also excluded to rule out the possibility that findings
were due to their extremely long service duration.
With these exclusion criteria, the present sample consisted of 295 participants (66 men and 229 women).
Their age ranged from 56 to 91 years old
(Mean ¼ 72.03, SD ¼ 6.91). The age distribution
was as following: 2% aged below 60, 34% between
60–69 years, 50% between 70–79 years, and 14%
aged 80 or above. Most of the participants had
retired and about half of them were married at the
time of the study. A majority of the participants lived
with their family (68.1%) and approximately onethird of them lived alone (29%). Concerning education level, more than half of the participants had at
least primary or secondary school education (71.5%).
As compared to men, women were more likely to
be widowed (2 ¼ 28.84, p < 0.001) and without
employment (2 ¼ 38.15, p < 0.001). There was also
no significant difference in demographic characteristics between the present sample and those who had
less than one year or more than 50 years of voluntary
service ( p > 0.01).
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
797
Voluntary work experience of the present sample
ranged from one year to 32 years, with a mean of
six and a half years. Among the participants, 55%
had less than five years of voluntary experience,
28.5% had 6–10 years experience, 8.5% had 11–15
years experience, and 8% had 15–32 years experience. On average, participants provided four hours
of voluntary service per week. Concerning the nature
of their voluntary service, most of the participants
assisted in organizing activities at community centers
(50%) or paid visits to their service recipients on an
irregular basis (57%). Recipients of their voluntary
service were predominantly elderly people (96%).
There was no gender difference regarding participants’ voluntary experience.
Instruments
Demographic variables. Participants were asked to
provide information on their age, gender, marital status, and education level as well as past and current
voluntary work experience.
Physical health status. A self-constructed item was
used to assess participants’ subjective physical health
status. Participants were asked to rate their physical
health on a five-point scale, with a higher score indicating poorer health.
General self efficacy. Participants’ perceived self-efficacy was measured by the ten-item Generalized SelfEfficacy Scale (Schwarzer, 1993). This scale assesses
the strength of people’s belief in their own abilities to
respond to novel or difficult situations and to deal
with any associated obstacles or setbacks. It demonstrates satisfactory internal consistency, test–retest
reliability, and convergent and discriminant validity.
The Chinese version of the scale is available and
shows satisfactory internal consistency of 0.86
(Zhang and Schwarzer, 1995). Participants were
asked to rate each item on a four-point scale, with
high scores indicating high levels of self-efficacy.
Social support. Social support was assessed by the 15item scale developed by Wills (1985). This scale
consists of seven items measuring emotional support
and eight items measuring instrumental support. The
Chinese translation of the scale is available and shows
satisfactory internal consistency with alpha values of
0.78 for emotional support and 0.74 for instrumental
support (Tang et al., 2002). Participants were asked
to indicate whether or not their family members
Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2003; 18: 795–802.
798
e. chau-wai yan and c. so-kum tang
provided the depicted types of support on four-point
scales, with higher scores indicating higher levels of
various types of social support. A self-constructed
item on the total number of close friends in the
voluntary group was also used to assess the level of
emotional support from other volunteer workers.
Work satisfaction. Satisfaction with voluntary work
was measured by a single item stating ‘Overall, how
satisfied are you with the volunteer work?’ Participants rated their satisfaction level with a ten-point
scale, with 1 as ‘extremely unsatisfied’ and 10 as
‘extremely satisfied’. Higher scores represent greater
satisfaction with voluntary work.
Perceived benefit from volunteer work. Perceived
benefit from volunteer work was measured by the
12-item Expectation Fulfillment Index (EFI) adopted
from a previous study on Chinese volunteers (Yiu
et al., 2001). This index is positively associated with
Chinese volunteers’ work satisfaction (Yiu et al.,
2001). Examples of depicted benefits are contribution
to the society and acquisition of new knowledge and
skill. Participants rated each item on a four-point
scale, with higher scores indicating greater perceived
benefit.
Burnout. Participants’ level of burnout was measured
by the 22-item Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach
et al., 1996). A high level of burnout is reflected by
high levels of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment. A Chinese
version of this scale is available and its internal consistency is satisfactory with alpha values ranging from
0.71 to 0.86 (Tang, 1998). Participants rated each item
on a seven-point scale, with higher scores indicating
greater burnout experiences.
RESULTS
There has been very little research studying burnout in
elderly volunteers, an exploratory factor analysis with
maximum likelihood estimation and direct oblimin
rotation was conducted to explore the factor structure
of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach et al.,
1996) for the present sample. Results suggested a
two-factor structure of burnout, namely emotional
depletion (EP) and lack of personal achievement
(LPA). The EP subscale contained all nine items from
the original emotional exhaustion subscale and three
items from the original depersonalization subscale,
while the LPA subscale included all of the eight
items from the original subscale. Both EP and LPA
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
subscales had eigenvalues greater than one, and
together they accounted for a total of 26% of the
variance.
Table 1 presents means, standard deviations, internal consistency, and results of Pearson correlation
analyses of major variables. All measurement scales
were internally consistent, with alpha values ranging
from 0.69 to 0.93. A series of hierarchical regression
analyses were performed to unearth the relative contribution of various factors in predicting burnout
among elderly volunteers. Various factors were
entered into the regression analysis from the micro
level (demographic and individual factors) to more
macro level (interpersonal and organizational factors). For subsequent analyses, demographic variables
including participants’ age, gender, marital status,
educational attainment, and years of voluntary work
experience were entered as Block 1. As years of
voluntary work experience were skewed toward the
shorter duration, this variable was transformed into
a logarithm with a base of 10. Individual factors of
participants’ physical health and general self-efficacy
were entered as Block 2. Interpersonal factors of emotional and instrumental support from family members
as well as support from other volunteer workers were
entered as Block 3. Organizational factors including
satisfaction and perceived benefit from voluntary
work were entered as Block 4. Regression analyses
were performed separately for EP and LPA subscales.
Detail results are summarized in Table 2.
For the EP subscale, the four blocks of predictor
variables accounted for a total of 12% of the variance.
Only demographics and individual factors were significant predictors. The beta values of the final model
showed that a low level of EP was best predicted by
older age, short years of voluntary work experience,
and good health. For the LPA subscale, the four
blocks of predictor variables were all significant,
and together accounted for a total of 39% of the variance. However, the significance of interpersonal variables was diminished after organizational factors
were entered into the regression analysis. Beta values
of the final model indicated that a high level of personal accomplishment was best predicted by a long
voluntary work experience as well as high levels of
general self-efficacy, work satisfaction, and perceived
benefit from voluntary work.
DISCUSSION
This study examined the role of individual, interpersonal, and organization factors in mitigating burnout
among elderly Chinese volunteers in Hong Kong. The
Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2003; 18: 795–802.
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
0.05
0.09
—
—
0–1
—
0.06
0.11
72.03
6.91
56–91
—
0.00
0.04
0.18**
0.13* 0.18* 0.24**
—
—
6.53
—
—
5.74
0–1
1–4
1–32
—
—
—
0.00
0.02
1.00
7
9
0.24**
0.27**
0.06
0.22**
1.00
0.56**
1.00
0.05
0.00
8
0.22**
0.06
1.00
10
1.00
0.21**
11
1.00
12
13
14
0.17** 0.07
0.01
0.01
0.08 0.03
0.04
1.00
0.10
0.30** 0.29** 0.17** 0.14* 0.36** 0.41** 0.10
1.00
2.84
28.18
21.50
23.13
4.57
7.58
38.42
16.03 14.78
0.90
4.77
3.43
4.06
5.47
1.89
3.88
3.97
3.39
1–5
4–40
7–28
8–32
0–40
1–10
12–48
12–84 8–56
—
0.93
0.84
0.82
—
—
0.71
0.69
0.72
0.19**
0.11
0.09
0.32**
0.16**
0.15*
0.12* 0.03
1.00
0.33**
6
0.20** 0.05
0.20** 0.01
0.08
0.09
0.05
0.01
0.07
0.10
0.22** 0.08
0.03
0.02
0.02
0.09
0.08
0.03
0.00
0.11
0.05
0.00
0.02
0.04
0.03
1.00
5
0.01 0.10
0.26** 0.03
1.00
0.12
4
0.00
0.04
0.03
0.15**
0.16** 0.07
0.06
0.06
0.11
0.01
0.11
0.25**
3
0.29** 1.00
1.00
2
0.23**
1.00
0.13*
Note: *p < 0.05 (two-tailed); **p < 0.01 (two-tailed).
Demographics
1. Age
2. Gender (0 ¼ female,
1 ¼ male)
3. Marital status (0 ¼ single,
1 ¼ married)
4. Education level
5. Voluntary work
experience (Years)
Individual factors
6. Poor health status
7. General self efficacy
Interpersonal factors
8. Emotional family support
9. Instrumental family support
10. Volunteer worker support
Organizational factors
11. Satisfaction with volunteer work
12. Perceived benefit from
volunteer work
Burnout
13. Emotional depletion
14. Lack of personal achievement
Means
Standard deviation
Possible range
Internal reliability (Alpha)
1
Table 1. Descriptive statistics and correlation results among major variables
chinese elderly volunteer burnout
799
Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2003; 18: 795–802.
800
e. chau-wai yan and c. so-kum tang
Table 2. Results of hierarchical multiple regression analyses
Emotional depletion
Block 1: Demographics
Age
Gender (0 ¼ female, 1 ¼ male)
Marital status (0 ¼ single, 1 ¼ married)
Education level
Voluntary work experience (Years)
Block 2: Individual factors
Age
Gender
Marital status
Education level
Voluntary work experience (Years)
Poor health status
General self efficacy
Block 3: Interpersonal factors
Age
Gender
Marital status
Education level
Voluntary work experience (Years)
Poor health status
General self efficacy
Emotional family support
Instrumental family support
Volunteer worker support
Block 4: Organizational factors
Age
Gender
Marital status
Education level
Voluntary work experience (Years)
Poor health status
General self efficacy
Emotional family support
Instrumental family support
Voluntary worker support
Satisfaction with volunteer work
Perceived benefit from volunteer work
Beta
t-value
0.23
0.03
0.08
0.04
0.19
2.89**
0.42
0.98
0.57
2.56*
0.22
0.03
0.06
0.06
0.21
0.21
0.05
2.83**
0.43
0.78
0.75
2.82**
2.80**
0.66
0.22
0.04
0.06
0.05
0.21
0.22
0.07
0.06
0.04
0.02
2.82**
0.51
0.79
0.65
2.85**
2.85**
0.75
0.63
0.50
0.33
0.22
0.04
0.07
0.04
0.24
0.23
0.06
0.03
0.06
0.04
0.02
0.12
2.80**
0.51
0.88
0.57
3.06**
2.96**
0.68
0.36
0.67
0.47
0.19
1.55
2
Lack of personal achievement
R
F Change
0.07
2.53*
0.11
0.11
0.12
Beta
t-value
0.17
0.03
0.07
0.09
0.37
2.34*
0.39
0.87
1.34
5.23***
0.14
0.01
0.07
0.04
0.36
0.00
0.23
1.82
0.18
0.99
0.57
5.09***
0.06
2.98**
0.12
0.03
0.08
0.01
0.32
0.01
0.18
0.21
0.01
0.13
1.59
0.42
1.13
0.20
4.68***
0.18
2.32*
2.66**
0.10
1.99*
0.13
0.04
0.09
0.02
0.21
0.01
0.17
0.10
0.00
0.09
0.25
0.23
1.95
0.56
1.40
0.24
3.11**
0.13
2.33*
1.35
0.01
1.42
3.70***
3.52***
3.98*
0.20
1.20
R2
F Change
0.17
7.34***
0.22
5.23**
0.28
4.74**
0.39 15.32***
Note: *p < 0.05 (two-tailed); **p < 0.01 (two-tailed); ***p < 0.001 (two-tailed).
present results first showed that burnout experience of
elderly voluntary workers also included affective (EP)
and cognitive (LPA) components (Maslach et al.,
1996). When compared to a previous study on
Chinese teachers, nurses, and police officers (Tang
and Lau, 1996), the present sample of elderly volunteers reported slightly lower levels of EP but much
higher levels of LPA. It should be noted that personal
achievement in paid employment would be measured
against concrete outcomes such as pay increases and
promotion. Participation in voluntary work often
relies on intrinsic motives such as altruism, personal
development, and social responsibility (Black and
DiNitto, 1990; Omoto and Synder, 1995; Barlow
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
and Hainsworth, 2001). However, the attainment of
these intrinsic goals are often difficult to evaluate.
Thus, it is understandable that volunteers may not
easily experience a sense of personal accomplishment
in the course of their voluntary service.
In this study, a majority of the depicted benefits
from voluntary work were related to contribution to
the society and opportunities to acquire knowledge
and skills, which are two important aspects of benefit/reward that elderly volunteers would like to obtain
from their service (Barlow and Hainsworth, 2001).
Indeed, results from hierarchical regression analyses
showed that among all hypothesized factors, organizational factors of perceived benefit and satisfaction
Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2003; 18: 795–802.
chinese elderly volunteer burnout
from voluntary work emerged as the best predictors of
the LPA dimension of burnout. These findings were in
line with previous studies in that few burnout symptoms are related to job satisfaction and reward from
work among employed human service professionals
(Demerouti et al., 2001; Freeborn, 2001) and volunteers (Bennett et al., 1996; Yiu et al., 2001).
Another salient predictor of LPA for elderly
Chinese volunteers was a sense of self-efficacy. As
hypothesized and similar to an earlier study on
Chinese teachers (Tang et al., 2001), results of this
study showed that a high level of self-efficacy was
predictive of a low level of LPA even after interpersonal and organization factors were entered into the
regression model. Research on self-efficacy (Bandura,
1997) also suggests that elderly volunteers with a low
level of personal competency may avoid challenging
tasks and take on monotonous and repetitious chores
in their voluntary service. This may deprive themselves potential sources of accomplishment. Moreover, elderly volunteers with low self-efficacy may
also have the tendency to have cynical and pessimistic
views regarding their own achievements and attach
little significance to their contribution.
This study also indicated that distinct predictors
were noted for the EP dimension of burnout. Unlike
the LPA dimension, interpersonal and organizational
factors were not predictive of EP, instead, health status emerged as the most salient predictor. It may be
that the EP dimension tends to have overlapping associations with psychological and somatic strains (Firth
et al., 1985). In fact, studies on western samples have
also identified a strong relationship between emotional exhaustion and physical symptoms (Schaufeli
and van Dierendonck, 1993). Furthermore, elderly
people with poor health conditions may have already
experienced a high level of emotional distress in relation to the aging process, limited abilities and time,
and anxiety toward death and dying (Wu et al.,
2002). Thus, they may be particularly vulnerable to
emotional exhaustion in their voluntary work.
Among the hypothesized variables, years of experience emerged as the only common predictor of EP
and LPA dimensions of burnout, albeit in different
directions. It was also noted that this variable
remained a significant predictor even after considering effects of age. In particular, a long period of
voluntary service was related to greater emotional
exhaustion and sense of personal accomplishment.
These findings were similar to a study on employed
substance abuse treatment therapists (Barnett and
Dowd, 1997). It is plausible that elderly volunteers
may be emotionally drained from their long voluntary
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
801
service, but were reluctant to terminate their service.
As a result of cognitive dissonance, they believed
themselves as accomplishing various goals to reconcile the frustrations and emotional exhaustion arising
from their voluntary service. However, it is also possible that a long duration of voluntary service may
provide elderly volunteers additional opportunities
to achieve the desired goals to enhance their sense
of personal accomplishment.
Limitations and implications
This study has several limitations and caution should
be taken in interpreting and generalizing the results.
First, the present sample was recruited from elderly
community centers. Elderly volunteers working in
organizations serving different clients such as young
children or people with special needs were not
included in this study. Thus, it remains unclear to
what extent the present sample represented the population of elderly Chinese volunteers. Second, this
study did not examine the nature of the voluntary
work which may have important implications for
burnout experience. For example, voluntary work that
involves intensive interpersonal interactions may be
more emotionally taxing than voluntary work that
requires clerical skills. Third, the present study relied
solely on self-reports of elderly volunteers regarding
their health status, social support, work satisfaction,
and burnout symptoms; which were subject to recall
and social desirability biases. Similar to most burnout
studies, elderly volunteers who experienced a severe
level of burnout may have already left the service, and
participants in the present study may consist of those
who experienced only a low to moderate level of
burnout. This may obscure the pattern of relationship
between burnout and various factors. Finally, this was
a cross-sectional study and its results represented
associations between variables only. No conclusive
statement on causal effects could be inferred from
the present findings.
Despite the above limitations, this study has important practical implications in mitigating burnout
among elderly volunteers. In particular, organizations
should strive to enhance satisfaction and perceived
benefit of voluntary work to enhance the sense of personal accomplishment. Organizations can provide
work-related training programs on skills acquisition
and enhancement of personal competency, with frequent reassurance and feedback of their performance.
Work assignments should receive social applause and
fulfil community obligations rather than comprise
repetitious and monotonous chores. The contribution
Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 2003; 18: 795–802.
802
e. chau-wai yan and c. so-kum tang
and accomplishment of volunteers should be recognized by issuing letters of appreciation and presenting
awards to outstanding and long service volunteers. As
good health is an important predictor of few emotional symptoms of burnout, regular check ups and
health promotion programs that aim at improving
the overall health conditions of elderly people are also
recommended. Finally, elderly people’s level of emotional distress should also be periodically evaluated
with referral to relevant intervention if necessary.
Helping elderly people develop personal and community resources may also help them cope more effectively with emotional distress arising from voluntary
work or concerns about the aging process, which in
turn may facilitate their participation and continuation of their voluntary service.
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