Georgia M. Jay, M.A., University of Minnesota Duluth Julie M. Slowiak, Ph.D., BCBA-D., University of Minnesota Duluth
The objective of this study is to assess the relationship between work demands and burnout among applied behavior analysis (ABA) practitioners, along with the moderating role of professional social support and psychological flexibility. This study extends previous burnout research within this professional demographic to understand how work demands may have changed for ABA practitioners in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We hypothesize that work demands will be positively related to burnout and that supervisor support, coworker support, and psychological flexibility will moderate the relationship between work demands and burnout. Specifically, we hypothesize that high levels of supervisor support, coworker support, and psychological flexibility will weaken the relationship between work demands and burnout.
ABA practitioners are at higher risk of burnout due to characteristics of their work. Among a sample of early-career behavior analysts, Plantiveau et al. (2018) found that two-thirds of ABA practitioners reported moderate to high levels of burnout. In another sample of ABA practitioners, 72% reported moderate to high levels of burnout (Slowiak and DeLongchamp, 2021). The field of applied behavior analysis is known for having high levels of turnover intentions and turnover (Kazemi et al., 2015; Novack & Dixon, 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic affected the United States workforce and the way in which work continues to be done. By the end of June 2020, 42% of Americans were working from home, and 33% were not working (Wong, 2020). Workloads for ABA practitioners were expected to be heavier during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may intensify physical and mental exhaustion. Perceived organizational support, an outcome of supervisor support, lessened levels of the emotional exhaustion and depersonalization dimensions of burnout (Eriksson et al., 2009). Emotional support provided by coworkers has been correlated with lower turnover for human service employees undergoing stressful situations (Tews et al., 2019). Psychological flexibility has the potential to mitigate the normal stress of ABA work (e.g., working with clients who engage in challenging behaviors), as well as the added stress of pandemic-related changes (e.g., providing services while social distancing, feeling isolated, adapting to telehealth, job insecurity; Moran & Ming, 2020). Existing literature on the wellbeing of ABA practitioners does not explore the potential benefits of professional social support.
A convenience sample of 298 ABA practitioners who self-identified as actively providing services to clients participated in this study. The study used a non-experimental design, and data was collected over a period of four weeks. A recruitment message with a link to a web-based survey (developed with Qualtrics survey software) was sent to potential participants via mass email by the field?s professional certification organization (i.e., Behavior Analyst Certification Board), as well as posted on/in relevant social media pages/groups. We collected sociodemographic and job-related information in addition to information about work demands, supervisor support, coworker support, psychological flexibility, and burnout. The survey included items from the Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire (Burr et al., 2019), the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (Demerouti et al., 2003), and the Work-Related Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (Bond et al., 2013). Currently, data collection and data cleaning are complete. Data analysis is underway. Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients will be used to examine the relationships among the study?s variables. Moderator analyses using multiple regression will be conducted to explore whether supervisor support and coworker support moderate the relationship between job demands and burnout, as well as whether psychological flexibility moderates that same relationship.
IBM SPSS Statistics 26 will be used for data analyses, and Hayes? process macro for SPSS will be used to test the moderation hypotheses (Hayes, 2018). We expect to complete data analysis by June 15 and manuscript preparation by the end of July 2021. This provides sufficient time for poster preparation before the submission deadline.
A major strength of this study is that its methods align with pre-pandemic research done on burnout within this professional demographic, making possible a comparison of results and evaluation of burnout within the context of the pandemic. One limitation of the study is the inability to measure actual social support. While this study evaluated perceived social support, this is a limitation that is shared with other research in the social support domain that relies on self-report methods. A second limitation is that we obtained a smaller than expected sample size, possibly associated with COVID-19-related survey fatigue. We expect findings from this research will inform interventions to reduce burnout-related disengagement and exhaustion and improve overall wellbeing among ABA practitioners.
ABA practitioners, a group that was already vulnerable to experiencing physical and mental exhaustion, are now at an increased risk of burnout resulting from potentially heavier workloads during the COVID-19 pandemic. Future research and practice should focus on organization- and individual- level strategies to mitigate burnout and, as a result, reduce turnover.