Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Susan R. Boser, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Daniel A. Heckert, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Harvey Holtz, Ph.D.


This qualitative case study examines the efficacy of a participatory action research approach process by an inside researcher and colleagues to address burnout in a local human service context. Thirteen middle management professionals from twelve organizations came together for sixteen months to examine the issue of burnout in their local human service system, eventually leading a number of local initiatives. Burnout is a constellation of symptoms related to stressful work that limit the helping relationship. The literature on stress and burnout suggests that it is possible to design interventions to build support for workers to reduce burnout. This study explores how more sustainable results can be obtained when workers themselves design the interventions, and explores how participatory action research is uniquely suited to address problems in the workplace by putting the problem in the hands of those who own it. Challenges emerging in the organizing phase of this process were analyzed in the course of the study. Participants struggled with grasping the intention and focus of action research, and with initiating the actual research itself. A matrix of power relationships in the human service workplace wound through the themes that emerged from the data. The findings indicate that most workers enter the human service field with passion and commitment, only to be challenged by the marginalization of their profession and influences of the organizational culture, including worker and organizational communication. These systematic issues are exacerbated by the scarcity mentality which workers share with those they help; but they are alleviated by support received from their organizations and from their colleagues, families, and their values. Many workers without adequate support systems exhibit the constellations of symptoms which are categorized as burnout. As co-researchers worked their way through an iteration of an action research cycle of planning, acting, and reflection, they found their voices. They found the confidence to apply understanding of the lived knowledge and experience, leading a number of local initiatives that contributed to worker autonomy and control over one’s work. The outcome is positive and sustainable change in a local context of the human service workplace.