Mental energy: An insider view

W.B. Schaufeli

Looking back at the end of my academic career, it looks like mental energy is still a hot topic in today’s research and practice in occupational health psychology, as it was a couple of decades ago. This applies particularly to burnout (low mental energy), but also to work engagement (high mental energy), which was introduced more recently. In this insider view, I am taking stock and try to answer four questions: (1) How well can we assess mental energy? (2) What is the prevalence of mental energy in the Netherlands? (3) What do we know about the antecedents and consequences of mental energy? (4) To what extent are interventions to increase mental energy evidence  based? The paper is concluded with a discussion about the relationship between science and practice, in which five examples are presented of important issues for practice, which, so far, have not been adequately covered by scientifi c research (i.e., short measurement tools, benchmarks, organizational interventions, severe burnout, cost-benefit analyses).


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Eind vorig jaar nam Wilmar Schaufeli afscheid als hoogleraar Arbeids-en Organisatiepsychologie aan de Universiteit Utrecht. In dit artikel blikt hij terug op het fenomeen mentale energie dat altijd een centrale plaats in zijn onderzoek heeft ingenomen. Burn-out, oftewel mentale uitputting, is gesitueerd aan de negatieve zijde van het energiespectrum en bevlogenheid aan het andere, positieve uiteinde. ‘Een burn-out hebben is niet hetzelfde als eens per maand vermoeidheidsklachten ervaren.’

Er is al jarenlang een afvalrace aan de gang. Er is een sterke verschuiving van fysieke naar mentale belasting. Van steeds meer werknemers wordt klantgericht werken geëist. Werknemers worden bovendien geconfronteerd met bezuinigingen en flexibilisering. In personeelsadvertenties wordt steeds vaker de nadruk gelegd op het belang van sociale vaardigheden; je goed kunnen uitdrukken, in een team kunnen werken, en tegenslagen kunnen incasseren.’

Deze woorden stonden daags na mijn oratie over burn-out in 1995 in een voorpagina-artikel van de Volkskrant (11 maart 1995). Dat artikel bewijst twee dingen. Allereerst is er kennelijk de afgelopen 25 jaar niet zoveel veranderd in Nederland; werken is nog steeds topsport en een afvalrace. En ten tweede, ook toen al stond burn-out in het centrum van de belangstelling. Dat is niet zo vreemd, want bij de invoering van arbeidsongeschiktheidswet (WAO) in 1967 bedroeg het percentage afkeuringen op psychische gronden 11% en ongeveer dertig jaar later, ten tijde van mijn oratie, was dat bijna verdrievoudigd tot 30%. Daarna is die stijging overigens gewoon

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