Study of the Prevalence of Burnout in University Professors in the Period 2005–2020
The purpose of this research is to carry out a systematic review of the existing scientific literature on the prevalence of Burnout in university professors in the time period 2005–2020. For that purpose, an exploratory review through the Web of Science (WoS) and Scopus related to this psychosocial syndrome under the PRISMA methodology has been made. After the application of the inclusion and exclusion criteria, a final group of 12 studies were obtained. The results show the presence of high levels of Burnout in a sample of 2,841 university professors in the period studied, which makes it necessary to implement psychosocial intervention programs to prevent this syndrome and promote the personal and professional accomplishment of teachers.
Currently, one of the main focuses of attention for research in the field of work psychology is the mental overload to which workers are exposed [1–4]. In this context, the effective integration of ICT in the workplace has led to the emergence of new work scenarios (such as teleworking or mobile work) and the massive use of electronic devices (tablets and smartphones), aspects that have increased the mental and psychological demands of the tasks faced by workers, causing the appearance of various health conditions, such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), mental fatigue, sleep problems, and Burnout [5–9].
Burnout is a multidimensional syndrome, the prevalence of which, according to different studies, is between 5% and 45% of the working population according to the sector and profession of reference, being higher in the health field [10–12]. Specifically, it is usually understood as a psychosocial syndrome, since it is characterized by agglutinating the different symptoms derived from the imbalances between the labor demands and workers’ competencies in three fundamental levels: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Emotional exhaustion is defined as the lack of emotional resources and the feeling of being exhausted and lacking energy. As for depersonalization, it is identified as the development of negative and insensitive attitudes towards the recipients of the services that are provided. Finally, the reduced personal accomplishment is characterized by negative answers to oneself and one’s own work related to episodes of depression, low morale, avoidance of interpersonal-professional relationships, low productivity, inability to withstand pressure, and poor self-esteem . At the same time, research agrees that this syndrome is more common in professionals who work directly with the public, which also entails a progressive loss of motivation, leading towards the development of feelings of inadequacy and personal failure [14–16].
Among the instruments most widely used internationally to assess this syndrome, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) stands out due to its simplicity in application, its adequate psychometric properties, and the information it provides [15, 16]. This self-report questionnaire assesses the feelings and thoughts of people in their work activity, evaluating the three dimensions indicated above. In the reviewed studies, the General Survey (GS) version has been selected, as it is the most widely used tool at the international level , which has allowed the inclusion of a large number of studies and their subsequent comparison.
Education, and especially higher education (University), is one of the areas with the highest prevalence of Burnout , which some authors estimate to be 40% . In this regard, a large number of investigations in recent years have inquired the causes of this fact, attributing it to high psychological demands, low rewards, mental overload, and the high demand to educate people at different stages of their vital development [19–24].
In addition to all of these, the current social-health situation, caused by the advancement of the COVID-19 virus, has generated significant changes at both work and social levels. The main change has been the consolidation of teleworking as a formula to avoid the spread of the virus and avoid social contact [25, 26]. Although it is still premature to determine what its ultimate impact will be in the workplace, the development of higher levels of stress and exhaustion is expected in all professions, due to the existing uncertainty and the changes that require adapting to this incipient work scenario and the new forms of work related to it.
To the isolation, insecurity, and fear generated by the pandemic, we can add the profound changes that are taking place in education. In particular, there is a change in the teaching model, moving from face-to-face education to a new virtual modality, for which university professors do not have the training, resources, and digital skills necessary to face these challenges . This situation is generating high levels of mental and psychological demands, unplanned digital literacy, and, consequently, a probable increase in the frustration and stress of these workers, which is translating into a higher prevalence of Burnout.
Under this reference framework, the objective of this study is to analyze the prevalence of Burnout in university professors in the last 15 years, in order to make a precise diagnosis of the situation and, in this way, to have an element of comparison from which to analyze in future research the impact that COVID-19 has had on the development of this syndrome in university professors. On the other hand, this systematic review aims to fill a gap in the area of educational research, as most of the studies are focused on primary and secondary education levels. Along with the aforementioned, methodological rigor and relevance are sought, following the guidelines of the PRISMA declaration on the management of this type of study, which guarantees the scientific quality of the findings.
1.1. Review of Literature
Traditionally, research on Burnout syndrome in the field of education has focused on the primary education (6–12 years) and secondary education (12–16 years) stages. However, in recent decades, and as a result of the changes brought about by the phenomenon of social globalization, which has given rise to a new educational reality at this stage , concern about this syndrome and its consequences has increased and has extended to the higher education level as well. This new scenario suggests a significant increase in work responsibilities for university professors, with high demands for online teaching, research, publication, and management, and a loss of control due to a lack of resources, a circumstance that substantially favours the development of this syndrome. In addition to these demands, nowadays e-teaching has become a priority as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added new psychosocial stress factors such as isolation, feelings of technological inefficiency, lack of training, or the difficulty of reconciling personal and professional life .
The few existing studies in this field do not provide consistent data on the prevalence of Burnout in the university environment, given the contextual and sample variability contained in such investigations. In this regard, there are some studies such as that by Lackritz , in which 20% of university professors report high levels of Burnout, or more recently, the work carried out by Amir , which shows that 40% of these professors have a high level of this syndrome. Similarly, a systematic review by Watt and Robertson  provides similar results. However, there are some studies that differ, such as that by Herranz-Bellido et al. , where a very low prevalence of 1.8% is obtained, and that by Palmer et al. , which highlights a prevalence of 2.6% in a sample of 554 university professors.
Regarding the dimensions that characterize Burnout, it is found that high levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization constitute the core of this syndrome . Marenco and Ávila , however, identified in a sample of 235 professors belonging to four Colombian university educational institutions that reduced personal accomplishment was the main manifestation of Burnout, whereas depersonalization was the dimension that contributed least to the appearance of this syndrome. Similar results are reported in the study by Ardıç and Polatcı .
In line with the aforementioned, there are different factors that have been associated with each of the dimensions of Burnout, some of the personal and, to a large extent, organizational. Emotional exhaustion has been mainly related to gender, with higher scores in women [30, 32, 38, 39]; age, linked to years of experience, which is inversely related to Burnout ; use of information and communication technologies (ICT) ; and mental overload, mainly as a result of the combination of teaching and management tasks and the pressure to research and publish that university professors face.
In relation to the aspects associated with the depersonalization dimension, there is a lack of emotional support and low optimism . In particular, there is evidence that support from friends and family seems to be a relevant explanatory variable, not only for depersonalization but also for the other two dimensions. Similar results are obtained with self-efficacy beliefs, which are strongly associated with Burnout and its three dimensions.
Finally, the dimension of reduced personal accomplishment has been related to the lack of economic and social rewards . This research shows that in educational organizations where there is a balance between effort made and rewards achieved, there is less prevalence of Burnout, sleep disorders, or depression. On the other hand, Kuimova  points out that one of the variables related to Burnout is a low salary. Other important factors that have been related to this dimension and to Burnout in general, and which are of great importance nowadays, are the psychosocial risk factors derived from the use of ICT in education, such as isolation, problems in reconciling work and family life, and lack of digital skills [43–45]. On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly led to the abolition of face-to-face lessons (replaced by virtual classes), and teachers have had to struggle against the lack of training, especially during the lockdown, and their feelings of technological incompetence (characterized by a sense of inefficiency and techno-insecurity) .
Against this background, one of the aims of the present review is to provide a starting point for a comparative assessment of the situation of postpandemic university professors and examine the extent to which new psychosocial risk factors together with traditionally reported risk factors contribute to the onset and development of Burnout in the university context.
2. Materials and Methods
To carry out this systematic review, the guidelines established by the PRISMA statement [27, 47] have been followed, specifically those established in the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyzes for Protocols version (PRISMA-P 2015) . This protocol includes a 17-item checklist that guarantees the robustness, integrity, and transparency of the research conducted in systematic reviews.
2.1. Source of Information
The first step in the present systematic review was to analyze the main existing scientific databases. To that end, the Web of Science and Scopus were selected as they are the databases with the most relevant impact metrics at the international level nowadays, in addition to having the largest number of publications in their archives.
Web of Science (WoS) is the broadest scientific information platform provided by Clarivate for consulting the databases of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). It includes the Science Citation Index Expanded (SCIE), Social Science Citation Index (SCCI), Arts & Humanities Citation Index (AHCI), and the Emerging Sources Citation Index (ESCI). On the other hand, Scopus is the second international database, in terms of the number of bibliographic references with summaries and citations of the peer-reviewed scientific literature, after WoS. It belongs to Elsevier and has tools for monitoring, analysis, and visualization of research.
Once both databases were selected, a search was carried out during the months of June to October 2020, using the terms “Teacher,” “Maslach Burnout Inventory,” and “University,” and alarms were set to notify any publication corresponding to the search completed. The follow-up was carried out until December 2020.
These searches were limited to the period between 2005 and 2020. This period was determined for two reasons: first, to include in this study research that reflects the effect of the integration and intensification of ICT in the workplace and, second, to cut it off in the year 2020, in order to estimate in future research the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the increase in the prevalence of Burnout in university professors.
2.2. Data Analysis Techniques
In the first search, a total of 60 articles were obtained in WoS and 84 in Scopus; 21 of them coincided and were added to a total of 123 unique articles. This first block of articles was selected exclusively based on the results provided by the bibliographic searches of both repositories (see Table 1):
In a second phase, criteria for exclusion and refinement of the articles were applied according to the PRISMA methodology, in order to be able to homogenize the results of the research. First, the 123 items were analyzed to verify the results that met the criteria set out in Table 1.
For this purpose, the titles, abstracts, and complete documents of the 123 selected articles were read, in order to identify the sample variables (university professors), scientific publication (yes/no), evaluation method used (MBI-GS), and how the results are included. These variables were analyzed, identifying 52 articles that included nonconcordant samples, other educational levels, or professional categories or that did not coincide with the position of university professor.
The following verification was based on the inclusion of only scientific articles, discarding 6 documents corresponding to lectures or congressional proceedings not published in article format in a scientific journal. At this point in the process, 58 of the 123 articles initially selected were considered excluded.
With the remaining 65 items, an in-depth analysis was carried out in relation to the research methodology and results. As part of this elimination process, 22 articles that did not apply the MBI-GS and 31 articles that delivered percentage results, Burnout risk levels, or other types of values different from the standard scores of the variables estimated by the instrument were identified. Similarly, those articles that used the tool in a comparative or correlational way without including the direct scores necessary to carry out the analysis process of the present investigation were discarded.
Finally, 12 articles were included in the process of systematic review as can be seen in Table 2.
As noted above, after the search process, exclusion, and treatment, a total of 12 scientific articles were included in this systematic review, which are shown in Table 3.
Table 4 lists the 12 studies reviewed with their corresponding objectives and main results obtained.
For the selection of study data, the results of each article were identified in relation to the use of the MBI-GS. The scale is divided into three subscales, which allow assessing the three dimensions that characterize this syndrome: emotional exhaustion (EE; items 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 13, 14, 16, and 20), depersonalization (D; items 5, 10, 11, 15, and 22), and reduced personal accomplishment (PA; items 4, 7, 9, 12, 17, 18, 19, and 21). As a cutoff point (diagnostic criterion), there is no general agreement among researchers to calculate the risk level. The most frequent criterion being the differentiation of three levels of risk considering the upper third diagnosis or confirmation of Burnout (more than 88 points), the middle third tendency to Burnout (between 44 and 87 points), and the lower third without risk of suffering Burnout (from 0 to 43 points).
To carry out the global calculation, a filtering of the samples used in the selected articles was carried out, since some of the studies included multiple samples or their results were broken down by different variables. In addition, some of them took into consideration different variables, such as gender or the type of contract or activity, showing the results in a disaggregated manner. For this reason, in some of the investigations, several samples were taken into account as the information related to the total investigation was not available.
In order to guarantee the homogeneity and veracity of the results, the following adaptations were made:(i)In the article by Azeem and Nazir , three samples of university professors with different job categories (lectures, readers, and professors) are included, the results of which are provided in relation to each category. Therefore, in Table 5, the three samples were analyzed independently (a, b, and c) because the article does not provide a global result.(ii)In the work of Arquero and Donoso , two measurements of the Burnout are made: one in research tasks (a) and another in teaching tasks (b), the results of which were included independently in Table 5.(iii)The research by Vercambre et al.  focuses on teachers of different educational levels, but only the results of the sample of university teachers were taken as a reference. Therefore, data from other educational levels not corresponding to university teaching are discarded.(iv)In the article by Teles et al. , the results are shown by gender; therefore, broadened results were included in Table 5 (women (a) n = 393 and men (b) n = 181).
Table 5 shows mean scores and their standard deviations as well as the sample size of each item analyzed. In the last row (Total) appears the weighted mean corresponding to the sum of all the studies analyzed in this research, configuring a definitive study, which includes 2,841 university professors in the set of articles included. The global scores of each study and the total mean of the analyzed group are shown.
In the “Burnout” column, the absence of risk is highlighted in green and the suspected risk of suffering Burnout in yellow.
In Figure 1, the position of emotional exhaustion (EE), depersonalization (D), reduced personal accomplishment (PA), and overall Burnout regarding the three identified risk levels in each of the corresponding subscales (red: level Burnout diagnostic, yellow: tendency to Burnout, and green: absence of risk) is detailed. As can be seen in Figure 1, 37% of the total sample of university teachers is in a situation of suffering from Burnout.
The results obtained highlight a high occurrence of Burnout syndrome in university professors, as well as a high risk of suffering from it. On the other hand, and in accordance with the multidimensionality of the Burnout construct, certain variability is observed in the scores for the three dimensions that characterize it. These differences are related to the different antecedent and modulating factors operating in each of these dimensions.
Specifically, most of the reviewed studies show a high rate of 37%, a result which is similar to the few studies carried out in the university context [30–32, 60]. However, two of the reviewed studies [50, 52] show a low affectation of Burnout in this environment, in accordance with some studies by Herranz-Bellido et al.  and Palmer et al. . The nonconsistency of the data shows the differential value of the different university contexts and samples used in the research [61, 62].
Along with the aforementioned, different percentages have been found in the three dimensions, which define this syndrome. To be more specific, the percentage in the emotional exhaustion dimension is 23%; it is 16% in the depersonalization dimension and 50% in the low personal fulfillment dimension, which clearly shows a tendency towards Burnout, thereby putting the professors in a position of risk of suffering from it. These findings are coherent with those found by Marenco and Ávila , who obtained a high percentage of 42.1% in the dimension of low professional fulfillment and 23% and 22.5% in the dimensions of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Similarly, these results are also consistent with the study by Ardıç and Polatci , which shows moderate levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization and high levels of low personal fulfillment.
The varying degrees of restrictiveness of the criteria used in the research as regards the score that delimits the greater or lower occurrence of Burnout risk explain part of the differences found in the values of each dimension. Furthermore, this divergence emphasizes the relevance of the social context in which Burnout occurs and is more context-related than person-related .
Regarding the factors related to emotional exhaustion, the work by Teles et al.  evaluates the interindividual differences according to gender, providing higher scores for female teachers compared to male teachers. In addition, Arquero and Donoso  also find higher mean values of emotional exhaustion in female teachers, and these results are similar to those reported by Watt and Robertson , Aimaretti et al. , Lackritz , Ghorpade et al. , and Tümkaya . Factors such as social distribution of gender roles and dual presence partially explain this variability.
Another important variable related to this dimension is work overload, which is the main source of stress in the university context . Both these variable and poor control are related to the perception of emotional exhaustion and mental Burnout. Specifically, and in relation to this aspect, the article by Arquero and Donoso  indicates that it is especially linked to research activities rather than teaching tasks. At the same time, this factor is related to the obligatory knowledge and mastery of ICT: techno-overload (51).
As for the depersonalization dimension, the results indicate that it is the variable with the lowest level of risk, and these findings are consistent with the studies by Marenco and Ávila  and Ardıç and Polatci . However, in Fabelico and Afalla’s work , a high value is found for this second dimension, although the participants’ response is very dispersed or distant from the mean average of the set of data. According to previous research, the enhancement of coping strategies, such as social support, protects against the development of Burnout in general and is related to a lower level of depersonalization  as they are incompatible coping behaviours.
Lack of personal fulfillment is the dimension with the highest scores among the reviewed studies, and it is associated with factors such as insufficient rewards received, lack of training and digital skills, and isolation. In this regard, Julieta  postulates that personal fulfillment goes beyond the mere and sole financial remuneration and is linked to the prestige or social recognition that provides full meaning to work and constitutes a protective factor for Burnout. Another important factor that has been linked to low personal fulfillment and to Burnout, in general, is the lack of digital skills that can lead to techno-insecurity. In relation to this issue, the obligatory use of ICT in teaching demands that teachers create virtual learning environments beyond their traditional role as transmitters of knowledge, which requires constant updating in light of the rapid development of technological innovations and the mastery of pedagogical and technological content (TPACK) to provide them with quality resources with which to face their new teaching role [44, 45]. In addition to the foregoing, university teachers must face other risk factors, which are inherent to the use of ICTs, such as isolation, the difficulty of digital disconnection, or the conflict to reconcile family and work .
Finally, and in relation to the three dimensions of Burnout, the study by Padilla et al.  shows the protective effect of self-efficacy beliefs against Burnout, which is consistent with previous research in this field [40, 64–66].
In summary, the studies are conclusive regarding the existence of Burnout in university professors. At the same time, it is observed that the worst valued dimension is the personal accomplishment, something significant due to the fact that teaching should be a rewarding task, taking into account its purpose: to help other people achieve their vital and professional goals and to the advancement of society in the proper way. This situation seems to be due, in part, to the demands of university teaching and the expectations that teachers themselves place in their activity. The high demands of the labor market and the responsibility that falls on the university are high. Meeting the expectations of students and the rest of the agents involved (society, companies, public administrations, etc.) significantly increases the pressure on the higher education system. Similarly, mental overload, isolation, lack of training and digital skills, and deterioration in communication, aspects inherent to telework , are possible causes that help explain the low scores in the dimension of personal accomplishment. In this sense, it would be interesting to include assessment instruments that delve into the personal accomplishment of teachers (work environment, career plans, reconciliation of work and professional life, etc.), as well as the inclusion of other modulating variables, such as gender and age, in future studies.
The investigations analyzed in this systematic review show the presence of Burnout in university professors. This phenomenon extends globally and has undoubtedly been influenced by the changes produced by the emergence and intensification of ICT in the fields of work and education. The way of educating is changing and the psychological demands to which university teachers are subjected have increased significantly in the last decade. It has gone from a profession of recognized prestige and with a high personal fulfillment to a more impersonal activity, with lower levels of communication and more oriented to the production of degrees than to the generation of scientific knowledge and the improvement of students as people and professionals.
On the other hand, it is observed that the emergence of COVID-19 has caused a substantial change in university teaching, one of its consequences being, to a large extent, the digital transformation. The change from face-to-face teaching to online teaching has occurred without the necessary adaptation processes, so it is expected that its influence on mental load, stress, and therefore, the prevalence of Burnout will be very high in the future.
In order to make an adequate comparison of the possible impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of university professors, it is necessary to know the starting point, the objective of this research. This will allow us to evaluate, in future investigations, the influence of COVID-19 on teachers’ occupational health, allowing us to establish strategies that increase the resilience and psychological capital of teachers in the face of this new situation, as well as reduce the negative effects on their health [43, 65]. It is necessary to keep in mind that the starting point can be clearly improved, with high levels of Burnout, which indicates a trend towards its proliferation in the coming years.
As limitation of the study, the difficulty of finding homogeneous samples and results that can be comparable with each other stands out. In the present research, it has been chosen, as it is one of the most widely used assessment instruments at an international level, to use the direct scores of the MBI-GS, but its flexibility and the possibility of presenting the results by scores, risk levels, or percentages make it difficult to compare them. Likewise, it has not been possible to obtain information regarding the way in which the questionnaires have been applied. In this sense, it is advisable to establish more standardized procedures for applying the instrument in order to guarantee the confidentiality of the data obtained. This fact is necessary for the participants to be sincere in their responses and obtain more realistic information and greater participation.
Finally, it is considered that the proliferation of teleworking and online teaching, the loss of freedoms, confinement, and isolation, and the fear of the pandemic are aspects that can cause a significant increase in Burnout levels in a demanding profession and with high social responsibility, such as that of a university professor.
The data used to support the findings of this study are included within the article.
Conflicts of Interest
The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest regarding the publication of this paper.
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