Union representatives at workplace level play a key intermediating role in a performing collective industrial relations system. Recent calls within the ‘union renewal’ literature have been made to re-examine this strand of literature. In relation to this central function of activism the paper illustrate that it is not only important to look how one becomes an active union member at the workplace, but also how one remains an active union member.

The first part of the proposed paper adopts for this purpose the job demands-resources (JD-R) model to the role of union representatives at the workplace. We established based on previous analysis a strong positive relation between role stressors like inter-role conflict and quantitative role overload on the one hand, and feelings of burnout on the other hand. Role ambiguity plays an indirect role. Secondly, it is especially support by the rank and file, which has a negative relation with burnout. Based on these findings we focus in the second part of the paper (only) on the antecedents of the role demands/stressors of a union representative function. Based on general role theory of work, we develop hypotheses on possible antecendents related to the industrial relations practice and context the union activists/representatives experience.

Key in this regard seems to be what we could call a context or environment of ‘high-involvement’ industrial relations; A high, dense role of interest representation at the workplace and activism with a lot of influence and recognition by the employer and a strong cohesion and support within the union rank-and-file leads on the one hand to lower levels of role conflict and ambiguity, but on the other hand the risk of role overload increases. Radical union beliefs and formal mandates decrease in this situation role ambiguity. Union activists that have a stronger personal-instrumental incentive to take up the role have a higher probability of a different pattern of role stress. They experience more role conflicts and role ambiguity, but overload their union role less. In general the included antecedents were less helpful to explain possible role overload.

The analysis is based on the results of a representative sample of 600 union representatives in industry from the biggest Belgian trade union.


Union representatives and broader activitsts at the workplace play a key intermediating role in a performing collective industrial relations system. They are an important link between the ‘logic of membership’ and the ‘logic of influence’ of a trade union (Schmitter & Streeck, 1999; Prott, 2004). Strong union representatives at the workplace are considered as an important explanatory factor for the success or failure of national union movements. The loss of power and presence at the company level is considered as an important factor for negative union membership trends (Hancké, 1993; Ebbinghaus, Göbel & Koos, 2011). In other words: a well functioning union team at the workplace that is committed to keep doing this shopfloor activism is defined as an important asset for union revitalization (Fiorito, Gall & Martinez, 2011).

This union activism at the workplace is today confronted with a range of challenges (Danford, Richardson & Upchurch, 2003). Pressure increases on union representatives and activists at the workplace (Pilemalm, Hallberg & Timpka, 2001). These increased pressures are situated within a practice of industrial relations that is by definition characterised by conflict and change (Bluen & Barling, 1988). In the present study we consider these presumed changes and their relation with union militantism by applying an organizational psychological perspective. Recent calls within the union renewal literature have been made to re-examine this strand of literature (Gall & Fiorito, 2011). The focus has in this regard been on the union participation literature. Antecedents of union activism at the micro-level are investigated.

We look at a specific type of organizational psychology, namely about psychological well-being, work engagement and burnout. We believe that it is within the union activism and renewal debate just as important to look not only to questions on ‘why and how people get actively involved in the union at the workplace’, but also on what factors determine a continuous engagement or the negative opposite ‘burnout’ as union representatives at the workplace. In this paper we focus on the antecendents of this union reps’ ‘burnout’.

Burnout and its consequences

Burnout mainly refers to emotional exhaustion (mental fatigue) and cynicism (a distant attitude towards one’s role) in the psychology of work.

The concept of burnout has been introduced in the psychosocial literature in the middle of the 1970s by Freudenberger (1974) and Maslach (1976). Freudenberger and Maslach “invented” the concept independently after having studied the same kind of reactions among volunteers who worked with social problems among underprivileged citizens. While burnout started as a non-theoretical “grass-root” concept it soon became a metaphor for a number of important psychosocial problems among persons who do “people work” and later among working people in general. This growing interest co-incided with a growing debate about the concept itself. According to the classic definition of Maslach and Jackson (1986, p. 1) “burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind”. However, in recent times the key change in the definition of burnout has been the limiting to the exhaustion factor. Cynicism and reduced personal efficacy are seen as effects and/or coping strategies of the ‘flat battery’ syndrome of burnout. Schaufeli and Greenglass define for example burnout as “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that results from long-term involvement in work situations that are emotionally demanding” (Schaufeli & Greenglass, 2001, p. 501). The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory speaks about work-related burnout as “The degree of physical and psychological fatigue and exhaustion that is perceived by the person as related to his/her work”.

Empirical evidence has shown that burnout has important ramifications for the individual worker including anxiety, depression, and lowered self-esteem. Chances on absenteeism and turnover are higher (Maslach et al., 2001).

The JD-R model as first theoretical device

In a previous paper we investigated the antecedents of ‘burnout’ in the role of union representatives by adopting the ‘balanced’ approach of the job-demands-resources model (JD-R) (Liagre & Van Gyes, 2012; Van Gyes, Liagre & Despiegelaere, 2012)). There is increasing evidence that the model is valid to the area of volunteer work (Cox, Pakenham & Cole, 2010; Huynh, Metzer & Winefield, 2011; Lewig, Xanthopoulou, Bakker, Dollard & Metzer, 2007).

The JD-R model is a well-established theoretical model that provides a comprehensive assessment on how employees’ working conditions may affect their health and well-being at work. The JD-R model assumes that every occupation has its own specific risk factors that lead to job stress. A broad variety of work aspects can be taken into consideration, but according to the JD-R theory, these characteristics can always be aggregated into two broad higher-order categories: job demands and resources. Another aspect of the JD-R model is its buffering assumption. In addition to the main effects of job demands and job resources, the JD-R model proposes that the interaction between job demands and job resources is important for the development of job strain and motivation as well. More specifically, it is proposed that job resources may buffer the impact of job demands on job strain, including burnout (Bakker et al., 2005; Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). It is claimed that several job resources can play the role of buffer for several different job demands in relation to burnout.

In our results we detected in the first place the expected relations between demands/resources and burnout. We especially noticed a strong positive relation between inter-role conflict and quantitative role overload on the one hand, and feelings of burnout on the other hand. Secondly, it is especially support by the rank and file, which has a negative relation with burnout. Overall, the fundamental balance model in the occupational health literature – here applied by the JD-R approach – seems also to have relevance to interpret (and solve) activism problems of union representatives at the workplace. In line with the ‘balanced processes’-idea of the JD-R model, we see in the results that all of the significant role demands explain a larger extent of the variance in burnout than the included role resources. A poorly designed role (inter-role conflict) and chronic work overload (quantitative role overload) exhaust the mental and physical resources of a union representative fulfilling his/her role.

We found finally partial confirmation for the buffering assumption of the JD-R model. This buffering assumption first of all suggests that available role resources buffer/moderate the relation between role demands and burnout. We did find conformation for this assumption, but other interaction effects we found run in a different way. Also it has to be said that all three interaction effects in the regression analysis on burnout are difficult to interpret because of the absence of clear main effects, which is in particular the case for the interaction effect between qualitative role overload and support by the direct union officer.

We established in the study thus a strong positive relation between role stressors like inter-role conflict and quantitative role overload on the one hand, and feelings of burnout on the other hand. Role ambiguity plays an indirect role. Secondly, it is especially support by the rank and file, which has a negative relation with burnout. The application of the JD-R model showed further that resources are an important factor in the functioning of union representatives at the workplace. These resources are mostly confined to the workplace itself: support from co-workers and a trustful, influence-based relationship with the employer.

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