Motivation for Altruism, Helping Professions and Burnout Syndrome

In this post, I decided to focus on the topic that I addressed in my bachelor's thesis in the last semester of my bachelor's studies. The goal was to conceptualize various motivational factors for altruism in helping professions in connection with the burnout syndrome. I would like to start with a bit of theory and then move on to describing research that I conducted.

Motives behind altruistic behavior are studied from many perspectives. Motivation as such is a very complex psychological process that drives us forward, determines our behavior, the probability of continuing in persisting in certain action, and helps us achieve daily and long-term goals. There are many factors that influence motivation even in the case of altruism. Altruistic behavior is commonly explained as selfless, beneficial, and focused primarily on the good of others. Evolutionary theory emphasizes empathy, kinship, reciprocity, and reducing one's own distress as motivational factors for altruistic behavior.

Empathy is the ability to cognitively and emotionally empathize with another person's situation. Therefore, empathy can subsequently influence our behavior. Research confirms that a higher level of empathy has a positive effect on the level of helping. For instance, Daniel Batson, an American social psychologist, manipulated the level of empathy in several studies and found that higher empathy leads to a greater tendency to respond altruistically. Thanks to empathy, a person can also be motivated to reduce own discomfort. If a person empathizes with another person's unpleasant situation, the helper may feel anxiety, nervousness, and other unpleasant emotions as well. In this case, helping is beneficial for both parties.

Reciprocity is another important motivational factor for helping in interpersonal relationships. Robert Ludlow Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, explained that altruism develops based on the expectation of reciprocal altruistic behavior from the recipient. However, reciprocal behavior does not have to happen immediately. Expectation of long-term benefits may be sufficient motivation for helping behavior. Reciprocity has a social function and also serves as a prevention against one-sided exploitation. However, the theory of altruism and motivation also deals with egoistic motives. These include the motivation to compete with each other in behavior that is perceived as socially approved and beneficial or to present oneself in a good light. It is important to mention that motivation is complex and often different motivational factors overlap.

Helping professions such as social workers, psychologists, doctors, teachers, or humanitarian workers are often prone to burnout syndrome due to their work characteristics. Among other things, burnout syndrome is characterized by a lack of motivation. Helping professions are often emotionally draining. This can lead to depersonalization and emotional detachment - some of the reasons why motivation in helping professions can decline. In my bachelor's thesis, I decided to measure various motivational factors for altruism in helping professions. Based on the existing literature, I included empathy, expectation of reciprocity, and self-serving bias in the measurement. In one's own research, one must pay attention to a number of circumstances and factors that can affect the reliability and validity of the research process and results. These include a selection of validated questionnaires, statistical analysis, and sampling of participants. Participants in my research were contacted by email and asked to complete four questionnaires measuring altruism, empathy, expectation of reciprocity, and self-serving bias.

The result was that empathy was the strongest predictor followed by an expectation of reciprocity. There was no significant result for self-serving bias. These results were consistent with previous research and empirically contributed to existing knowledge. Empathy explains that not only the people who need help experience distress, but also the workers who try to solve the situation. This can simultaneously increase their performance as well as to contribute to emotional exhaustion. On the other hand, sharing a positive emotion when for example the client is satisfied, his situation has improved and he is happy, helps to reduce symptoms of burnout. Reciprocity does not only have to take the form of physical reward or incentives but also of these positive feelings.

Examining different motivational factors in the helping professions is useful for developing preventive mental health interventions. For example, programs and training focused on empathy are already taking place abroad. These trainings can focus on how to manage reflected empathic behavior, strengthening differentiation between self and the client, or strengthening empathy in the case of excessive depersonalization. In helping professions, these programs can help in prevention of burnout, strengthen motivation, and thus support work efficiency. However, in other professions, such as managerial positions, empathy training can be similarly useful.

Motivation in helping professions, where workers help others on a daily basis, is very complex and consists of many factors that intertwine. In other words, altruistic behavior can be explained from many different perspectives rather than one. It is important to focus on how to prevent lack of motivation. The first step is to define these motivational factors and examine their relationship. Not only considering helping professions, altruistic behavior in general has a social function that promotes mutual benefit and cooperation in society. Research has confirmed that helping others also increases one's own psychological well-being.

In conclusion, I would like to mention that burnout syndrome and lack of motivation is not an exception for helping professions. Helping professions were chosen based on their association with altruistic behavior in my bachelor's thesis. However, even in other professions, there may be instances of reduced motivation to help co-workers or depersonalization due to reduced empathy or other motivating factors. I hope that the topic of my thesis was interesting for you. I definitely find it interesting which is the key - to write about something that is interesting, personal, and meaningful to you.

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