Burnout and Expectancies About Alcohol Use

Burnout and Expectancies About Alcohol Use:  Drinking Behavior in a Sample of University Professors

by Tracy McDonald and Marc Siegall



This article reports on a study that was conducted to explore the effects of job burnout and positive expectations regarding alcohol use among university professors. It is based on the responses of one hundred and thirty-nine faculty members at a mid-sized western university to a survey that measured burnout, expectancies regarding alcohol use, and drinking behavior. Results indicated that faculty members who experience greater degrees of job burnout and have more positive expectations regarding the use of alcohol report a significantly higher level of binge drinking. Differences in factors contributing to the relationship between burnout and drinking were found between men and women. Practical implications regarding alcohol abuse in the work setting are discussed.


peer-reviewed articleTracy McDonald tmcdonald@csuchico.edu and Marc Siegall msiegall@csuchico.edu are Professors in the Department of Management at California State University, Chico.

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Jan is a university professor and her job seems to have lost the meaning it once had. Every morning, she dreads getting out of bed, and when she gets to work, the day seems endless. Maybe she has just been at it too long. She can’t relate to the students anymore, and she is exhausted when she gets home from work. And she still has are ten years to go untill she reaches retirement age! Sometimes it seems that the only thing she has to look forward to is the glass of wine she has when she gets home from work. But what started as one glass has turned into two, three…   sometimes she loses count. And the mornings seem even worse when she wakes up with a hangover. Lately, the hangovers have been so bad that she sometimes calls in sick.

Jan’s situation is not unique. Alcohol abuse is currently one of the most widespread problems facing American organizations. More than 18 million Americans have alcohol problems (National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, 2002), and 70 percent of heavy drug and alcohol users work full time (DeLapp, 1999). In the workplace, alcohol abuse is related to such consequences as increased accidents, injuries, and illness; reduction in intellectual performance, including learning and memory; reduced morale among co-workers of the alcohol abusing employee; and lower quality products and poor service (Drotos, 1999). Many of these consequences may occur even when the alcohol abuse takes place outside of working hours (e.g., due to hangovers as in the above scenario or to alcohol-related health problems).  The cost of drug and alcohol abuse to the American economy is $276 billion a year in lost productivity, healthcare expenditures, and other expenses (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 2002). Employer benefit payments for alcohol abuse have significantly increased in recent years and abuse of alcohol has a significant effect on absenteeism, retention, and job performance (West, 1999).  Additionally, a dramatic surge in the number of organizations offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to help workers with drinking problems has taken place in the recent past (Steele, 1998).

How might a manager recognize what sort of employee characteristics or experiences might make a worker prone to abuse alcohol? Early researchers (Conger, 1951; Conger, 1956; Cappell & Greeley, 1987) demonstrated that people drink to reduce tension and anxiety caused by undesirable situations. This study specifically targets the work situation and explores what factors might create enough tension and anxiety to make someone drink. We decided to study job burnout because research documents that it causes tension and is often experienced by employees whose work involves direct, face-to-face contact in situations that have the potential to become emotionally charged (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993). 


Burnout is a job-related stress syndrome that has three components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of diminished personal accomplishment (Abrams & Niaura, 1987; Poherecky, 1991). Emotional exhaustion is the lack of energy and the feeling that one’s emotional resources have been used up at work. Employees experiencing emotional exhaustion commonly feel dread at having to return to work another day. Depersonalization is characterized as viewing co-workers and clients as dehumanized objects, instead of people. These employees may become detached, cynical, and callous. Finally, workers experiencing diminished personal accomplishment evaluate their work performance negatively and feel a decline in job competence and achievement. Burnout has been associated with a variety of psychological problems such as depression, irritability, helplessness, and anxiety (Jackson & Maslach, 1982; Kahill, 1988). We reasoned that since there is evidence that individuals drink in response to tension brought on by uncomfortable psychological states (Berger & Adesso, 1991; Wesner, 1990) and since burnout can be viewed as one type of uncomfortable psychological state, higher degrees of job burnout would be related to higher levels of drinking.

Expectancies Regarding Alcohol Use

In order for an employee to drink as a response to a negative work situation, s/he must believe, or expect, that alcohol can reduce the uncomfortable response to the situation. Accordingly, such an individual will be more likely to drink if s/he believes that the act of drinking will result in positive consequences (Leigh, 1989). For example, a worker might believe that drinking results in a decrease in level of tension experienced. Research studies have shown that positive expectancies about alcohol use are strongly related to drinking (Armeli, Carney, Affleck, & O’Neill, 2000; Lee & Oei, 1993; Knight & Godfrey, 1993). Most of these studies have used high school students or undergraduates as subjects. We wanted to explore whether the relationship between alcohol expectancies and drinking would hold true for professionals, that is, faculty members in the university setting in the western United States.

Our Study

Our study, then, explores two questions. First, is burnout associated with excessive drinking? That is, do faculty members who experience burnout drink greater amounts of alcohol compared to their counterparts who do not experience as much burnout? Second, do those who have positive expectations regarding the use of alcohol drink more alcohol compared to those who do not have such positive expectations?


One hundred and eighty-nine faculty members at a medium-sized, four-year university in the western United States completed our survey.  One hundred and three respondents were male and 86 were female, and their ages ranged from 27 to 66 years old. One hundred and thirty-nine of the total respondents reported engaging in drinking behavior and forty responded as non-drinkers. This study is based on the responses of the 139 participants who reported in engaging in drinking behavior.

The Survey


Job burnout was measured using the instrument developed by Maslach and her colleagues (Maslach, 1982; Maslach & Jackson, 1981; Pines & Maslach, 1980). The Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most commonly used burnout measure, assesses the three components mentioned earlier: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished personal accomplishment. This instrument also measures overall burnout, which is a combination of the aforementioned three components of burnout. Participants responded to a series of questions using a scale with a 1-7 range, with higher scores indicating greater degrees of burnout. 

Expectancies regarding alcohol use

Three questions measured the degree to which survey respondents expected drinking to lead to positive outcomes. An example of one of these items is: “Alcohol helps me avoid thinking about my problems.” These items were also rated on a 1-7 scale, with seven indicating more positive outcomes expected from alcohol use.


To measure drinking behavior, survey respondents were asked how many times in the past twelve months they had consumed six or more drinks in a day. Alternatives on the 12-point scale ranged from “never” to “on a daily basis.” We chose “six drinks” because it is the definition typically used in the research for binge drinking (Wechsler, Dowdall, Davenport, and Rimm, 1995). We defined a drink as a beer, a glass of wine, or a mixed drink. 

The appendix contains the items from the survey instrument.

What We Found


Our first question was whether faculty members who experience greater amounts of burnout report drinking more heavily than those experiencing lesser amounts of burnout. To answer this question, we computed correlation coefficients between scores on the Maslach Burnout Inventory and the amount of drinks reported by faculty members. We found statistically significant relationships between drinking and overall burnout, depersonalization, and diminished personal accomplishment. Emotional exhaustion was not significantly associated with drinking. Table I (below) contains these correlations and Table II (below Table I) contains the corresponding means and standard deviations.

Table I

Correlations between drink frequency and overall burnout, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment.  (n=139)

                                                                                    Drink Frequency


Overall Burnout                                                                   .22**


Emotional Exhaustion                                                         .15


Depersonalization                                                               .18*


Personal Accomplishment+                                              -.22**



*p<.05 (two-tailed)


**p<.01 (one-tailed)


+low levels of Personal Accomplishment are associated with high levels of drinking


Table II 

Means and standard deviations for drink frequency, expectancy, overall burnout, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment for entire sample and for males and females.

                                    Entire Sample                         Males                           Females

                                          (n=139)                              (n=74)                           (n=65)

                                      Mean (SD)                         Mean (SD)                  Mean (SD)


Drink Frequency            1.7            (1.8)                  1.9     (2.1)                 1.4     (1.4)


Overall Burnout               3.2           (1.1)                   3.0    (1.0)                 3.4   (1.1)


Emotional                     4.2             (1.8)                    3.8    (1.5)                 4.6    (1.8)



Depersonalization        2.6            (1.3)                   2.6    (1.2)                   2.7    (1.4)


Personal                       5.2            (1.05)                  5.3    (.9)                      5.0    (1.1)



These findings suggest that people who view their co-workers and clients as dehumanized, who feel a decline in job competence and achievement, and who feel burnout in an overall sense engage in what may be considered binge drinking (six or more drinks in a sitting) significantly more frequently than workers who do not experience such strong feelings of burnout.

We decided to explore these relationships in more depth. More specifically, we wanted to see if there were any differences in the relationship between drinking and burnout for females compared to males since male and female drinking patterns are, in general, different (McKee, Hinson, Wall, and Sriel, 1998). Accordingly, we computed the same correlations described above separately for the two groups. We found that men and women did not differ in terms of the relationship between overall burnout and drinking, but they did differ in terms of which of the three components of burnout were related to drinking. For women, diminished personal accomplishment was significantly related to drinking, but emotional exhaustion and depersonalization were not. For men, depersonalization was significantly related to drinking, but the other two components of burnout were not. Table III (below) displays these results.

 Table III

Correlations between drink frequency and overall burnout, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment broken down by gender.


                                                                        Drink Frequency

                                                Females (n=65)                       Males (=74)

Overall Burnout                                    .26*                                .26*

Emotional Exhaustion                         .23                                  .18

Depersonalization                               .09                                   .26*

Personal Accomplishment                 -.33**                               .18





What these findings mean is that women who feel that they have experienced a decline in job competence and achievement tend to engage more frequently in binge drinking, but this relationship does not apply to men. Men who dehumanize their co-workers and students report engaging more frequently in binge drinking, but this relationship does not apply to women. Though causation cannot be inferred, separate components of burnout are related to drinking in women compared to men.

Expectancies Regarding Alcohol Use

To answer the question whether employees who have positive expectations regarding alcohol use drink alcohol more frequently, we computed correlation coefficients between expectations and drinking behavior. The significant correlation (r=.51, p<.001) showed that positive expectations are indeed associated with drinking. The more positive the expectation, the more frequently the faculty member reported binge drinking. We did not find any significant differences between female and male faculty members. Thus, it seems that previous research examining alcohol expectancies among high school and college students generalizes to this group of professional employees. Table IV contains the means and standard deviations for the items measuring alcohol expectancies and drinking behavior.

Table IV

Means and standard deviations for items measuring alcohol expectancies and drinking behavior.


Item                                                                                                                 Mean (SD)


Alcohol provides a “time out” from work and other responsibilities.          2.94 (1.98)


Alcohol helps me avoid thinking about my problems.                                 2.08 (1.6)


Alcohol is a reward for a sometimes stressful life.                                      2.68 (1.9)


For the preceding 12 months, how many times have you had six or

            more drinks in a day?                                                                         1.7 (1.18)


What Do These Results Mean?

So what can administrators do if they suspect that a faculty member is drinking to cope with burnout? Taking steps to deal with this problem is particularly important in light of the negative outcome of alcohol abuse described at the beginning of this paper. Fortunately, the research on burnout, alcohol expectancies, and our study suggest several possible solutions. 

Keep the Environment Burnout Free 

Years of research have shown that characteristics of the job and of the organization are strongly related to employees’ experiencing burnout (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993). Three such characteristics are role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload. When an employee receives conflicting job demands from different managers or co-workers, role conflict exists. Role ambiguity occurs when the employee does not know what is expected of her/him.  When an employee feels that work cannot be done in the allotted time, role overload is experienced. Another organizational characteristic that has been shown to be related to burnout is noncontingency of organizational rewards. This occurs when the reward system seems to be unrelated to job performance.

What can an administrator do? Look at the department. Talk to faculty members. Do faculty members know exactly what is expected of them (role ambiguity)? Are any of them receiving conflicting charges (role conflict)? Are they able to feel a sense of completion at the end of the day, or do they have so much work that they feel they can never get it done (role overload)?  Do they feel that rewards are based on their performance (reward contingency)? Some changes that administrators might want to make to ameliorate burnout may not be under their control, but there are probably some changes that can be made to deal with the job characteristics described above. Administrators can convey clear expectations to all employees regarding their job responsibilities. They can make sure that only one person has ultimate authority over any given employee. Work assignments can be broken down and given in sub-assignments so that the employee does not feel overwhelmed by job demands. If rewards are truly based on job performance, rewards should be made public. That way, all employees will see the direct relationship between job performance and reward. 

Recognize that Men and Women May React to Different Components of Burnout

 In our study, we found that although men and women did not differ in terms of the relationship between overall drinking and burnout, they did differ in terms of which components of burnout were related to drinking. For women, diminished personal accomplishment was related to drinking, whereas for men depersonalization of co-workers and students was related to drinking. These findings suggest that different strategies may be appropriate in helping the two genders abstain from drinking as a response to burnout. For women performing at an acceptable level, it may be appropriate to use strategies to boost their self esteem regarding job performance since women were shown to drink in response to feelings of decline in competence and achievement.  For example, administrators might make more effort to provide frequent positive feedback to female employees when they achieve high levels of performance. Men, on the other hand, may need some sort of training in developing empathetic skills since men who dehumanize their co-workers and clients tended to engage in more binge drinking.

Reinforce the Use of Healthy Responses to Burnout

Jobs probably cannot be changed to be completely burnout free. Thus, it is essential that faculty members learn healthy strategies to deal with burnout. Workshops addressing burnout can be offered which emphasize healthy alternatives to drinking.  Instead of going to happy hour after work, employees can be encouraged to go to the gym. Instead of opening a beer when arriving home, employees can learn to choose to take a walk with the dog or a swim with a family member. The university may want to explore investing in corporate rates for health club memberships for faculty members to provide them with healthy alternatives to alcohol use.

Change Worker Expectancies Regarding Alcohol Use

Our study showed that faculty members who perceive positive outcomes resulting from the use of alcohol tend to drink more. If they perceive negative outcomes resulting from the use of alcohol, it is likely that they will drink less. An EAP can be crucial in pointing out and reinforcing the many negative outcomes of heavy drinking such as adverse health effects, hangovers, traffic accidents, losing face among colleagues, friends, and family, engaging in behaviors that are later regretted, weight gain, and so on.


Though burnout is often experienced by American employees, and our study demonstrates that faculty members engage in binge drinking in response to burnout, there are courses of action an administrator can take to deal with this problem. The challenge is to keep communication channels open with employees regarding the experience of burnout and strategies the employees are using to deal with burnout. With such knowledge, positive interventions can be made in terms of job and organizational design and in terms of the development of healthy coping strategies on the part of employees.


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Armeli, S., Carney, M., Affleck, G., and O'Neill, T. (2000). "Stress and alcohol use:  A daily process examination of the stressor vulnerability model." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 979-994.  

Berger, B. D. and Adesso, V. J. (1991). "Gender differences in using alcohol to cope with depression." Addictive Behaviors, 16, 315-327.

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Cordes, C. L. and Dougherty, T. W. (1993).  A review and integration of research on job burnout.” Academy of Management Review, 18, 621-656. 

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1.  I drink alcohol on occasion.      

___No If "No" skip to Question 6

___Yes If "Yes" continue with Question 2                                        

Alcohol Expectancies

(The following three items were rated on a 1-7 ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”)

2.  Alcohol can provide a "time out" from work and other  responsibilities.

3.  Alcohol helps me avoid thinking about my problems. 

4.  Alcohol is a reward for a sometimes stressful life. 

Drink Frequency

5.   For the preceding 12 months how many times have you had six or more drinks in a day?

Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach and Jackson, 1981)

To what degree is each statement UNLIKE or LIKE you?

(The following statements were rated on a 1-7 scale ranging from “very much unlike me” to “very much like me.”   Items 6-12 measure emotional exhaustion, 13-20 measure depersonalization, and 21-28 measure personal accomplishment.)

 6. I feel emotionally drained from my work.

 7. I feel used up at the end of the workday.

 8. I feel fatigued when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job.

 9. I feel burned out from my work.

10. I feel frustrated by my job.

11. I feel I'm working too hard on my job.

12. I feel like I'm at the end of my rope.

13. I feel uncomfortable about the way I treat co-workers.

14. I feel I treat some people at work as if they were impersonal objects.

15. Working with people all day is a real strain for me.

16. I've become more callous toward people since I took this job.

17. I worry that this job is hardening me emotionally.

18. I don't really care what happens to some people at work.

19. Working with people directly puts too much stress on me.

20. I feel some people at work blame me for some of their problems.

21. I easily understand how people at work feel about things.

22. I deal very effectively with the problems of people at work.

23. I feel I'm positively influencing other people's lives through my work.

24. I feel very energetic.

25. I can easily create a relaxed atmosphere with those I work with.

26. I feel exhilarated after working closely with others at work.

27. I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job.

28. In my work, I deal with emotional problems very calmly.


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