Research Article: Exhausted through client interaction—Detached concern profiles as an emotional resource over time?

Date Published: May 6, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Bettina Lampert, Christine Unterrainer, Christian Thomas Seubert, Sharon Mary Brownie.


To identify long-term profiles of Detached Concern (DC), based on its core dimensions detachment (D) and empathic concern (C), and to determine their association with burnout among human service professionals.

Self-reported data from healthcare, teaching and social professionals (N = 108) were collected in 3-waves over an 8-month period. Latent profile analysis and analysis of covariance for repeated measures were applied.

Five relatively stable longitudinal DC profiles emerged: (1) ‘detached’ (high D—low C; 33%); (2) ‘empathic’ (high C—moderate D; 31%); (3) ‘balanced’ (high D—high C; 21%); (4) ‘boundless’ (high C—low D, curvilinear trend; 8%); (5) ‘moderately uninvolved’ (low C—moderate D, increasing; 7%). Findings revealed profile differences based on gender (p < 0.05; χ2(4) = 9.73) and work experience (F [4, 103] = 3.26, p < .05). Differences could also be found for emotional exhaustion (F [4, 101] = 6.34, p < .001). The lowest emotional exhaustion over time occurred among balanced professionals. A stable or increasing risk of exhaustion over time was found in particular among profiles with moderate-to-low levels of detachment. A balanced DC protects professionals’ mental health because it is associated with the lowest levels of emotional exhaustion over time among the distinct DC profiles. Findings provide evidence-based information for education and health-promoting interventions and contribute to self-awareness of the strengths and risks of DC and burnout for human service organisations and professionals.

Partial Text

Research has focused on the issue of burnout for several decades (see for a review [1,2]), in an attempt to address the growing mental health challenges arising in the workplace. Burnout is regarded as a work-related chronic strain reaction to job stressors in which the individual suffers a persistent negative state of mind [1,3]. Emotional exhaustion refers to feelings of being emotionally overextended, a draining of energy and chronic fatigue. It reflects the core burnout dimension [4] and the central quality of burnout which is most widely reported and systematically analysed [1]. Research in the past has consistently found that emotional exhaustion is related to mental and physical health [5–8].

The descriptive statistics, alpha reliabilities and correlations of all variables are presented in Table 1. Participants’ mean levels of both concern and detachment were rather high, which was corroborated by the fact that 50% of all values lay in the range of 3.8 and 5 (the scale maximum level). This is an expected finding for a sample of human service professionals with intense client contact and with mid-range levels of emotional exhaustion (Table 1). Females reported higher levels of concern at T1 and T3, and higher levels of emotional exhaustion at T2. Across all measurement occasions, detachment (but not concern) related negatively to emotional exhaustion.

The aim of the present study was to focus on extending our understanding of how and why professionals regulate their emotional space in client-interactions as part of a required emotional involvement process in human service jobs. More specifically, the first goal was to explore potential person-centered profiles of professionals’ empathic concern and detachment as an integral part of the DC concept and its longitudinal development. The second aim was to extend the knowledge of cross-sectional findings that pertain to the relationship between long-term DC profiles and burnout among human service professionals. We investigated how yet unidentified long-term DC profiles of empathic concern and detachment developed in an 8-months follow-up study using 3 waves. Human service professionals formed the target group, as their work is regarded as emotionally demanding and involves the provision of empathic face-to-face services with intensive client contact, as a principal work task.

Our focus in this study has been on the ways that professionals with intense client contact at work manage emotional boundaries in client interactions in the long-run, and how this affects their emotional exhaustion. As the study demonstrates, employees obviously work in a distinct way with clients applying more or less empathic concern in combination with more or less emotion regulation through detachment, resulting in five different DC profiles. Over a longer period of time employees seem to favour one of these DC profiles as part of their professional identity. Gender and work experience also interfere with the DC profiles. Professionals are more prone to experience emotional exhaustion when they emphasize one of the DC dimensions (detachment- empathic concern) over the other. A highly-balanced successful DC is most beneficial for the prevention of burnout and complements a positive approach to emotions and emotion regulation in provider-client interaction.




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