Interview by Eric Collins

Dr Catherine Lam is Associate Professor at the Department of Management. Her research interests include leadership, social comparison, emotions, job stress, team processes, interpersonal harming/helping behaviour, and creativity in organisations. Here she talks about workplace burnout and how we can overcome it.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional and physical resource depletion which arises in response to work-related stress. This is an organisational reality for many employees and has a significant impact on their functioning, work performance, and well-being.

What kinds of workers burnout?

Customer service workers are particularly susceptible because interactions are in real time, requiring intensive emotional regulation. Typically, there are many service rules that have to be followed, and it is necessary to maintain a cheerful presence in order to keep the customer happy. This entails display regulation, especially positive emotion.

It sounds like faking happiness?

Yes, or more accurately, it’s about emotional control. Even if you wake up in the morning and you feel blue, you cannot express that emotion in the moment. The emotional effort to display a positive front, or at least to stay neutral, consumes a lot of cognitive resources, and people’s resources are limited in any one day creating feelings of burnout. You feel like this is the end of the road and you feel exhausted. This is not clinical burnout, it is casual daily burnout and is very common amongst the younger generation.

Burnout is quite prevalent among the Hong Kong workforce, not only service workers. It could happen whenever you experience work demands such as physical workload or emotional control. If your work control and resources – skills, knowledge, experiences, autonomy, motivation – are not sufficient, you burnout.

Why are younger people particularly affected?

The younger generation does not have so much formal work experience, so when they enter the workplace after graduation they may face quite a lot of unexpected demands. A new environment, new people, interpersonal conflicts, unfamiliar work culture and procedures, in a word – overload. With limited skills and experience, they may suffer from work stress. When that stress is prolonged, the burnout syndrome will appear.

Is this effect reduced if you identify strongly with your company?

Yes, one of the solutions to alleviate negative feelings is to create a norm in the organisation such as identification with your profession or with the company. This generates the motivating resources, and is one of the coping strategies to deal with high levels of stress.

Empirical research shows that norms generated in teams are very powerful. Many company structures these days are based on teams, and they can create strong cooperative norms. If the whole team believes that a high level of customer service or cooperation among all team members is very important, that in turn can be recognised and rewarded by the company. The norm can shape everyone’s behaviour. So even if you feel exhausted, it won’t matter at all because you are following your team members.

How to make best use of the team to improve productivity?

When a team is cohesive and goals are aligned with the company’s performance goal, members are motivated. Individuals’ efforts in the team will be directed collectively to the company’s performance. These team elements have been consistently shown to improve company productivity.

Is workplace abuse more prevalent in places like Hong Kong because of a latent “Confucian” tradition?

The concept you mention is related to the powerdistance perception, the notion that a particular group has a higher power compared to another group. In terms of Chinese culture this perception is pronounced. The general population assigns the power to someone higher in the hierarchy. Within a company this would translate to the feeling that your supervisor or boss deserves to have a higher power than you. Therefore, you respect that power more compared to counterparts in other places like Europe and America.

It sounds like this can have a downside?

Negative side effects are that it may create the phenomena of misuse of power, corruption and abusive supervision. This introduces the possibility of unethical behaviour, where leaders may abuse subordinates with impunity, especially if they are “not performing”. In this kind of environment, people commonly feel abuse is justified and it is the employee who is making the mistake. We call this instrumentality practice.

Abusive supervision is perceived by some managers as a necessary corrective. Our research challenges this assumption. We have tried to find evidence as to whether being abusive can improve subordinates’ performance. No, not at all. In the long run employees will suffer feelings of unfairness, and will reduce their performance.

But in a hierarchical society, isn’t compliance the “natural” response?

I think we have to distinguish between society and organisation. The macro-level culture influences the ideology of the organisation, and opens up the possibility of abusive supervision in the workplace. Then on the micro-level you have team behaviour, which has the potential to improve subordinates’ emotional disposition and mitigate burnout.

So, people experience high pressure at work partly because of cultural values which may create feelings of powerlessness. However, in a more structured environment employees have a way out because they can make use of the team. This can generate the resources to cope with workplace problems, issues of burnout, and how to change perceptions of power. The question is how people can survive balancing the cultural and the normative influences. This generates many interesting research questions.

What do you mean by “procedural justice climate”?

This is a shared perception among all members about the extent to which the team is exercising fair procedures in making decisions. I think it is closely related to perceptions of leadership and abusive supervision. As we have discussed, how subordinates interact with their leaders is strongly shaped by cultural values, especially power-distance. Where negative leadership styles (e.g. authoritarian leadership) are relatively dominant, such as in Chinese society, it is very important to find a way to alleviate the negative influence. The good thing is: leaders, as a part of the team, can shape or be shaped by the procedural justice climate. So, a positive procedural justice climate is one way forward.

Is this related to transparency?

Yes, it’s the team climate related to how decisions are made, and how transparent this process is. For example, an HR department has an annual performance evaluation affecting a salary increment. If everybody including the procedural policy makers, values the procedural justice climate, they tend to believe that the authorities have made a fair decision for everyone. This can work in an organisation of any size, from international companies to Hong Kong family-run SMEs.

How is technology affecting communication in the modern workplace?

Modern technology is affecting human networks and the flow of information between people, making relationships more complicated, and increasing work stress. The speed of work has increased with people multi-tasking, in terms of amount, time and outcome, making it more difficult for people to relax.

The distinction between “on” or “off” work seems to have disappeared for many people

Yes, people are on duty every single moment. WhatsApp or WeChat may carry work-related messages at any time of the day or night.

The Scream was created by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch in 1893. The painting has become one of the most iconic images of modern art, symbolising the angst and uncertainty of living in modern society.

What do you think of Hong Kong’s efforts to strike a work-life balance?

This is an important issue but difficult to regulate especially in an environment where a small number of companies are major employers and wield a lot of influence. In countries such as France or Germany which have a much more advanced social security system, it is more feasible to talk about work-life balance. Hong Kong is at a minimal level and because of that people don’t have a strong sense of social security in their job, and so fear of losing the job is very significant here. The work mentality means that work-life balance is not at the fore. High work stress is driven not just by society and government, but also by individuals themselves.

Does the government have a role to play in stopping workplace harassment?

Overt abuse can be prevented by legislation, but subtle aggression such as uncivil behaviour, or social exclusion is perhaps more prevalent, and is difficult to legislate against. So, if we want to work against these subtle negative influences, I guess we have to go back to the team processes, how they are set up, how the internal norms are generated, and this could be one of the ways forward for the younger generation. Having a good team, being more engaged with team activities, can really help the individual worker.

Is gender discrimination a particular problem in the Hong Kong workplace?

I think women have quite high status in the Hong Kong workplace. In general women here are well-educated and hold relatively high-status jobs. Of course, gender discrimination concerns vary across different occupations, and may be more prevalent in maledominated fields such as engineering. But in general, I think Hong Kong is doing quite well in this area.

What is the beneficial effect of self-monitoring?

In general terms, this is related to self-control, and is one of the elements that helps team communication and is important for leadership as well. If leaders lack self-control, it is easy for them to misuse power, lose their temper, and destroy the team climate.

How can individuals improve self-control?

Scientific research suggests that consistent engagement in self-control exercises, such as physical exercise programmes or financial management training can improve self-control. As the ability of supervisors to maintain self-control has important implications for employees, it seems prudent for supervisors to be aware of negative consequences of engaging in unethical or abusive acts. Such awareness among supervisors and employees can be learned through workplace norms for civil behaviour or through participating in training or course about workplace ethics.

Tips to counteract burnout
Accumulate individual work resources
  • Be open to new experiences
  • Keep learning new skills and knowledge
  • Develop better self-regulatory capabilities
  • Respect others to build strong interpersonal relations
  • Proactively participate in team building – as positive team norms can produce great social and instrumental support for individuals
Physical and psychological resources
  • Maintain physical health, e.g. regular exercise
  • Ensure sufficient rest and breaks to allow recovery from work
  • Treasure valued family and social relationships – as these are important origins of emotional support


How generalisable is your research on the workplace?

Much of my work is based in mainland China, and generally speaking the Chinese workplace is becoming more westernised. Organisations are not really indigenous any longer. They use many western practices including participation, and transformational ideas such as how to become an inspirational leader and stimulate creativity. Globalisation is downplaying local work styles. Internationally, companies are looking at one another for best practice in the global workplace.

Out of 71 global cities listed in the “working hours” index of UBS’s annual “Prices and Earnings” study, Hong Kong came last by a pretty hefty margin, with an average of 50.11 hours spent at the workplace per week. (Selected data from UBS)
Dr Catherine Lam
Associate Professor
Department of Management