Situational strength is defined as the implicit or explicit cues provided by entities external to the individual regarding the appropriateness of certain forms of behaviour [1
]. The most used operationalisation of situational strength so far distinguishes four main characteristics (facets), namely, clarity, consistency, constraints, and consequences [2
]. These characteristics of a situation can influence (enhance or restrict) the behaviour of a person in a given setting. Situational strength can significantly impact people’s behaviours and even have a greater effect than personality characteristics [2
]. When the environmental characteristics determine how an individual has to behave, the situation is strong. On the contrary, if the environmental characteristics allow the subject freedom to decide and act, the situation is weak.
Many studies have examined the effect of situational strength on organisational behaviour [3
], but little has been investigated about its health effects. For example, situations with high situational strength can favour compliance with safety regulations and foster healthy behaviours at work (behavioural outcome), especially in higher-risk jobs, nevertheless they can also increase stress and deterioration of psychological health and well-being of the employee (health outcome) [1
]. To contribute to a better understanding on health effects, this study aimed to analyse the relationship between situational strength and burnout. Specifically, we examined whether situational strength characteristics may be associated with burnout, whether these characteristics are risk (or protective) factors for burnout, and whether a strong situation is related to higher levels of burnout. Additionally, knowing that the strength of a situation is related to occupation [5
], and to increase the robustness of the study results, we analysed data from three samples of different occupations.
1.1. Situational Strength at Work
Situational strength at work is understood as environmental pressure on the individual in the workplace settings that will influence his/her behaviour in an important way [1
]. The meta-analysis by Meyer, Dalal, and Bonaccio [5
] examined in 114 studies the different forms of empirically operationalising environmental characteristics and grouped them into two broad categories. These categories are “constraints” and “consequences” and represent two logically consistent dimensions of how situational strength can affect behaviour. Subsequently, after analysing the historical evolution of the concept of situational strength, Meyer et al. [1
] included two more factors, clarity and consistency, which theoretically completed the construct of situational strength. Later, this four-factor structure containing clarity, consistency, constraints, and consequences, was operationalised through the Situational Strength at Work Scale [2
]. Clarity is defined as the extent to which directions related to job responsibilities and requirements are available and easy to understand. The greater the clarity of information about the expected behaviours of employees, the smaller the differences in the behaviours of those who perform them and, therefore, the more predictable the behaviour is. Consistency refers to the degree to which the indications related to job requirements are compatible with each other and with other indications, that is, to what extent the different sources of information offer consistent information or not on the expected behaviours of employees. The higher the consistency of indications, the greater the uniformity of behaviours. Constraints consist of the degree to which individual freedom to decide or act is limited by forces beyond his/her control. Constraints limit the behaviour of individuals as to what actions to perform, or when and how to perform them. Finally, consequences refer to the degree to which the actions or decisions have important positive or negative implications for other people, for the organisation, or for other situations. This factor influences behaviour since people tend to increase the possibility of positive results and to avoid or minimise negative ones. These four factors are part of the same construct, but each one provides different information so that the strength of each particular situation is a function of the conjoint effect of the four. However, it is not yet clear how the four factors are related and combined [1
1.2. Situational Strength and Burnout
Burnout is considered a highly prevalent globalised health issue [8
]. It is a syndrome that consists of a response to prolonged exposure to chronic work environment stressors [10
] that negatively affect the physical and psychological health of workers as well as their performance. For example, it is associated with physical [11
] and mental disorders [12
], low morale [13
], intention to quit [14
], poor performance [15
], and work–family conflict [16
], among others.
The literature on situational strength and burnout is very scarce. In a search carried out in the PsycInfo, Medline, Psycodoc, and PsycArticles databases in August 2020, no reference was found with the words “situational strength” AND “burnout” OR “health” in the titles or abstracts. Some references were found by searching separately for each situational strength factor. Specifically, regarding clarity, three references were found that were consistent in pointing out the negative association between clarity and burnout. For example, Blumenthal, Lavender, and Hewson [17
] compared role clarity and burnout level in two groups of support workers, finding that the group with the highest level of role clarity has less burnout level. Frögli et al. [18
] found that role clarity was negatively related to burnout in nurses during the first professional year, and Vullinghs et al. [19
] found that role clarity moderated the effect of passive leadership on followers’ burnout. Concerning consistency, a study [20
] reported the negative relationship between self-consistency and burnout in principals, so that the less self-consistent and more inefficient they were, the higher burnout they felt. Related to constraints, a reference found [21
] indicated that the constraints of the work environment lead workers to experience burnout. Finally, no references about consequences and burnout were found.
More research has been done on the theoretical concepts opposed to clarity, consistency, and constraints. Specifically, according to Meyer et al. [2
], role conflict and role ambiguity conceptually overlap with lack of clarity and lack of consistency respectively, and job control and autonomy would express the opposite concept to constraints. Thus, if the relationship between role conflict, role ambiguity, and burnout is positive, it is expected that the direction of the relationship between clarity, consistency, and burnout will be negative. Similarly, if the relationship between job control and burnout is negative, then the relationship between constraints and burnout will be positive. Empirical evidence supports this rationale. Studies analysing the relationship between role conflict, role ambiguity, and burnout are consistent in pointing out positive associations between these concepts, that is, high levels of role conflict and role ambiguity are related to high levels of burnout [22
]. In turn, studies that examine job control and autonomy are consistent in pointing out negative relationships to burnout [26
]. Therefore, we present hypothesis 1:
Clarity and consistency will associate negatively with burnout, whereas constraints and consequences will associate positively with burnout.
Additionally, drawing on the job demands–resources theory [29
], stressors at work are environmental factors, work characteristics, and work events that usually harm the quality of working life as well as employee health, safety, and well-being, whereas resources are usually protective factors [30
]. Individuals experience stressors as risk agents that elicit strain reactions such as burnout [31
]. From this perspective, clarity and consistency are organisational resources to increase and facilitate understanding of information about job responsibilities and/or requirements and to uniformly communicate a particular course of action through a variety of channels, whereas constraints and consequences are demands that can limit autonomy, job control, and decision-making capacity, generating stress [2
]. Accordingly, we present hypothesis 2:
Clarity and consistency may be protective health factors whereas constraints and consequences may be risk health factors of burnout.
In summary, although there is not much research on the relationships between the characteristics of situational strength and burnout, the empirical evidence suggests that clarity and consistency would be negatively associated with burnout, being a protective health factor, whereas constraints and consequences would be positively associated with burnout, being a risk health factor.
1.3. The Strong Situation Hypothesis
The strong situation hypothesis is supported by the idea that behaviour can be explained by the joint effect of personality and the characteristics of the situation [32
]. Thus, variation in situational characteristics at work may have important effects on organisational behaviour. The degree to which the characteristics of a situation limit the effect of personality on behaviour is the degree of situational strength. The strong situation hypothesis states that a strong situation limits the effect of personality on behaviour and, as a consequence, the variability of the criterion variable is low. However, when the situation is weak, personality effect is high and also the variability of the criterion variable [34
]. According to Meyer et al. [1
], when the levels of the four factors (clarity, consistency, constraints, and consequences) are high, the situation is strong, prompting the individual to perform specific behaviours, which in turn will be more predictable. Conversely, when the levels of the factors are low, the situation is weak, and behaviours will be less predictable.
Some meta-analyses have provided evidence to support this hypothesis. For example, Meyer, Dalal, and Bonaccio [5
] found that the personality trait of consciousness predicted both task performance and overall job performance more strongly in occupations low in constraints and consequences than in occupations high in constraints and consequences. Bowling et al. [3
] achieved similar results and found that the relationship between job satisfaction and job performance was associated with constraints but not with consequences. Judge and Zapata’s results [36
] revealed that all five traits were more predictive of performance for jobs in which the process by which the work was done represented weak situations. However, other authors found no support for the strong situation hypothesis. For example, Lozano [37
] investigated the extent to which situational strength determines the trait level at which situations are more discriminative, finding that although situational strength moderated the effect of trait on behaviour, the results did not consistently support the situational strength hypothesis.
Although it seems to be clear that a strong situation affects behaviour, it is not so clear that it affects burnout, that is, whether a strong situation is related to less variability in burnout and whether a weak situation is related to higher variability in burnout. A strong situation implies that the levels of the four factors of situational strength are high. High values in the four variables at the same time will limit the subject to act. However, high values in the four variables at the same time will not increase or reduce burnout because high clarity and consistency will reduce burnout whereas high constraints and consequences will increase burnout. Therefore, high values in the four variables will annul or balance each other with respect to burnout.
Two issues emerge from this rationale. First, variability in the health outcome (burnout) may be not related to the strength of a situation. Second, interaction effects (moderation) between factors of situational strength are expected concerning burnout. Specifically, it could be expected that clarity and consistency effects on burnout strengthen when interacting with each other, and the effects of constraints and consequences on burnout also increase when interacting with each other. Additionally, it could be expected that constraints restrict the effect of clarity and consistency on burnout. Accordingly, we present the next hypothesis:
Contrary to the strong situation hypothesis, a strong situation (high clarity, consistency, constraints, and consequences) will not be related to lower variability of burnout and a weak situation will not be related to greater variability of burnout.
Additionally, we expected and tested the interaction effects between situational strength factors to explain burnout, but due to the lack of previous literature, we did not formulate any specific hypothesis.