Keeping the Cup Full: Buffering against Stress and Burnout

“Is the cup half empty or half full”? People often ask this to determine whether someone has a positive or negative outlook on life, and often in response to a stressful situation.  Many theories related to employee well-being, stress and burnout look at an individual’s appraisal of the situation (i.e. their perception of whether the cup is half full or half empty) as the main influence in stress. Often, employees methods of coping may be considered maladaptive and in need of fixing, following the disease model of psychology.  However, Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources Model suggests that these individual factors do not operate in isolation; an individual’s environment and resources can greatly contribute to their levels of well-being (i.e. to what degree is the cup actually full).

To help protect the things they value, individuals build up a set of resources from their environment that help buffer against stress. While many core values are consistent among individuals (e.g. health, well-being, peace, family/whanau, self-preservation and a positive sense of self) they may also differ depending on personal beliefs, so the resources required to maintain well-being can differ among individuals.  Resources that people typically utilise in their work environment include:

  • Physical resources (e.g., computers, tools, car, mobile phone)
  • Condition resources (e.g., supportive work relationships, seniority at work)
  • Personal resources (e.g., key skills and personal traits, including self-efficacy and self-esteem)
  • Energy resources (e.g., knowledge, credit, drive and ambition).

Organisations are the provider of many of these resources and Hobfoll suggests that organisations should provide as many of these as possible; as individuals strive to protect the things they value at all costs, it is in an organisations best interests to operate in coordination with these values, or risk long-term effects such as burnout, breakdown, turnover and counterproductive work behaviour.

Hobfoll’s model is both a stress and motivational theory, it identifies how people might be impacted by stress, but also how individuals and organisations can respond to stress and protect individual resources. Studies have shown that losing resources is a key source of stress that can trigger further resource loss and stress, resulting in burnout and disengagement.  If an employee is starting to see their cup as “half-empty” they may have lost many of their coping mechanisms and be at risk of losing more. 

Limiting resource loss, building resources, and “keeping our cup full” is key for stress prevention. At an individual level, employees can “full their cup” by acknowledging and building their skills, confidence and knowledge. Organisations can also have a huge impact on the coping resources available to their teams and employees; they can provide supportive team environments, suitable leadership, comfortable working environments and adequate resources to complete a job without stress. In summary, both organizations and individuals have a part to play in improving employee well-being. The ideas discussed above are very general suggestions for helping employee “keep their cups full”.

What specific resources do you provide your employees to help buffer against stressful situations?

What do you encourage them to do to manager stressful situations?

Hobfoll, S. E., (2011). Conservation of resource caravans and engaged settings. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology,84, 116–122.

Westman, M., Hobfoll, S. E., Shoshi, C., Davidson, O. B., Laski, S., (2005). Organizational stress through the lens of Conservation of Resources (COR) theory. In: Exploring interpersonal dynamics. Perrewé, P. L. ,  Ganster, D.C. (Ed.); pp. 167-220., US: Elsevier Science/JAI Press.


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