Factors Influencing “Burnout” Perception in Athletic Training Professionals

This week’s EXSS Impact post examines various factors that may influence the perception of “burnout” in athletic training professionals.  Many thanks to J.D. DeFreese for developing this week’s post.

Why did you do this study?

Burnout is maladaptive psychological syndrome characterized by feelings of chronic exhaustion, depersonalization (for those who one provides services/care to), and reduced accomplishment towards one’s work. Burnout is an important psychological health concern for working professionals including those within the dynamic, fast-paced environment of competitive sport. In sport, burnout has been examined in populations of athletes, administrators and officials. But more recently, social science researchers have begun to examine burnout in athletic training professionals.

Burnout Symptom Description
Exhaustion Fatigue resulting from job-related demands and work stressors
Reduced Accomplishment Inefficacy & consistent poor perceptions of job performance
Depersonalization Negative, detached attitude toward aspects of the job, including patients (athletes)

Previous research has examined various psychological factors which predict higher levels of burnout in athletic trainers, including work-based pressure, stress, and other social and dispositional variables. Building on previous work, researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill examined athletic trainer perceptions of work stress and workload incongruence (difference between anticipated work hours and actual work hours) as potential contributors to athlete trainer burnout perceptions. Moreover, as they are tied to outcomes of health and well-being, both social support and negative social interactions from individuals at work may impact athletic trainer burnout. Thus, social support and negative social interactions were also examined in the current study. Accordingly, the purpose of our study was to examine the associations among perceived job stress, workload incongruence, social interactions (social support and negative social interactions), and burnout perceptions in a sample of athletic trainers.


What did you do and what did you find in this study?

Participants were 154 athletic training professionals who were members of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA). To recruit these participants, an online survey participation link was sent to a randomized sample of athletic trainers provided by the NATA. Participants completed a computer-based survey assessing demographic information as well as their perceptions of stress, social interactions, burnout, and workload incongruence. The survey was administered via the Qualtrics survey system.

Total Participants 154    
Gender Male=78 Female=76
Ethnicity Not Hispanic/Latino=149 Hispanic/Latino=6
Race White/Caucasian =149 African-American = 1 Other=4

We measured participant self-report perceptions of study variables using valid and reliable psychological measures. Study variables of interest included work stress (Perceived Stress Scale), social support (Social Support Questionnaire), negative social interactions (negative items from the Positive and Negative Social Exchanges Scale), and burnout (Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey). Workload incongruence was measured by having participants self-report their anticipated (when they began the job) work hours and current work hours for their current athletic training positions. A workload incongruence score was calculated by subtracting anticipated work hours from actual/current work hours.

How do these findings impact the public?

Participants reported, on average, low-to-moderate levels of global burnout as well as individual symptoms of exhaustion, reduced accomplishment and depersonalization. Results showed perceived stress and workload incongruence to positively predict global burnout and social support to negatively predict global burnout. Negative social interactions trended toward a positive association with global burnout, but this association was not statistically significant. However, negative social interactions did positively predict the burnout symptom of depersonalization.

Such work contributes to the knowledge base on the psychological health and well-being of sports medicine professionals by informing the design and evaluation of interventions designed to prevent athletic trainer burnout. Such interventions should promote positives social interactions for athletic trainers at work while attempting to minimize workplace stress and workload incongruence when possible. Efforts designed to prevent negative social interactions at work could specifically lower athletic trainers’ feelings of depersonalization and ultimately aid in retaining professionals within the athletic training workforce. The design, implementation and assessment of such intervention represents a fruitful area for future research. Ultimately, preventing burnout in athletic trainers will improve their psychological health and well-being and facilitate better care for the athletes and teams they serve.


This study was an interdisciplinary collaboration between Dr. J.D. DeFreese, a sport & exercise psychology-trained social scientist, and Dr. Jason Mihalik, ATC, CAT(C), an athletic trainer and sport-concussion researcher. This project sets the stage for future research collaborations at UNC-Chapel Hill with a focus on the development of athletic trainer burnout over time in larger samples of both professional and student athlete trainers. The work has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Athletic Training.

Citation: DeFreese, J. D., & Mihalik, J. P. (2016). Work-based social interactions, perceived stress, and workload incongruence as antecedents of athletic trainer burnout. Journal of Athletic Training 2016; 51(2) doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-51.2.05. Available Online. Pre-press. E-publication.