Original Research

Serving up the self: Role identity and burnout in client service environments

Carly Steyn, J.J. de Klerk
SA Journal of Industrial Psychology | Vol 41, No 1 | a1279 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v41i1.1279 | © 2015 Carly Steyn, J.J. de Klerk | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 23 April 2015 | Published: 18 December 2015

About the author(s)

Carly Steyn, School of Business and Finance, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town; Department of Human Resource Management, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa
J.J. de Klerk, University of Stellenbosch Business School, Stellenbosch University; Department of Human Resource Management, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa


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Abstract

Orientation: Whilst the limited investigations into the relationship between identity and burnout have made an important contribution to our understanding of the development of burnout, further research is required to gain a deeper understanding of how the processes associated with the construction and enactment of a specific identity could contribute to burnout amongst client service employees.

Research purpose: The purpose of this research was to explore whether levels of burnout amongst client service employees are associated with the manner in which they define and enact the client service role identity.

Motivation for the study: The negative effects of burnout amongst client service employees can be particularly devastating for client service organisations. A deeper understanding of the causes of burnout amongst client service employees is therefore essential if we wish to reduce the significant costs associated with burnout in this environment.

Research approach, design and method: The research strategy comprised a qualitative design consisting of semi-structured interviews.

Main findings: The results of the study indicate that the role identities of higher burnout client service employees differ from the role identities of lower burnout client service employees. Lower burnout employees view the client relationship as a partnership and experience a high level of self-verification when dealing with their clients. Higher burnout employees, on the other hand, describe themselves as subordinate to the client and exhibit strong feelings of defeat and failure when interacting with their clients.

Practical implications/managerial implications: The study shows that if client service organisations wish to reduce the detrimental effects of burnout in the workplace, they need to pay careful attention to the way in which their client service employees perceive themselves in relation to the client. Since client service employees construct role identities in response to the dominant discourse of the organisation, client service organisations should exercise caution in how they define and refer to the client-employee interaction through this discourse.

Contribution/value-add: The article makes a number of practical recommendations, which, if implemented by client service organisations, should result in lower levels of burnout, increased productivity and improved client relations. One such recommendation requires client service organisations to reframe their client discourses in such a way that client service employees are referred to as knowledge experts that are valued by their organisations.


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