BCBA Burnout is a Public Health Concern

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Dr. Todd Ward


Plantiveau, Dounavi, and Virues-Orega (2018) published a study in the European Journal of Behavior Analysis in which they used “job satisfaction and burnout measures to characterize a potential public health concern among practitioners delivering applied behavior analysis (ABA) services.”

The public health concern clusters around burnout, and has emotional exhaustion as a core symptom.  Burnout also reliably predicts deterioration in physical health, increased absenteeism at work, and increased turnover.


The team surveyed 183 active ABA practitioners with the following characteristics:

58% lived in North America

40% lived in Europe

66% were Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs)

14% were Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral (BCBA-D)

2% were Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBAs)

Respondents were recruited through professional organizations, listservs, and social media. Two key components of the survey were the widely-used Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) and Job Satisfaction Survey (JSS).


The authors stated “according to the cut-off levels recommended by Maslach, Jackson, and Leiter (1996), participants scored high in emotional exhaustion and depersonalization and low in lack of accomplishment: a pattern that is considered compatible with burnout.”

All participants were considered emotionally exhausted, according to the MBI. 37% scored on the low end of exhaustion, 37% were moderately exhausted, and 26% were highly exhausted.

All participants exhibited depersonalization. WebMD describes depersonalization as “feeling disconnected or detached from one’s body and thoughts” and “feeling like you are observing yourself from outside your body or like being in a dream.”  In the study, 29% had high levels of depersonalization, while 37% were in the moderate range, and 34% were in the mild range.

All participants suffered from lack of accomplishment.  50% scored in the high range, 28% scored in the moderate range, and 22% in the low range.


The team concluded that “lack of job satisfaction and risk of burnout are highly prevalent in this population.”  However, they noted that social support seems to play the biggest protective role.  More specifically, having a team of professionals around you who engage in frequent positive interactions and training opportunities that are relevant to the work were shown to correspond to lower burnout and higher job satisfaction.

Of course, if burnout is widespread in a company, the likelihood of social support diminishes.

Advocate for Yourself

If you are suffering from burnout, take time to review the  Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts, to ensure your company is not pressuring you to act unethically.  For instance, in a previous article we discussed contingencies around billable hours that detrimentally impact employees in a variety of fields.

You are obligated to hold your boundaries in these situations. For example, Code 5.02 states that BCBAs should only take on a volume of cases commensurate with their ability to be effective. Code 2.01 further states that a BCBA should only accept clients if they have the available resources to do so.  Finally, Code 2.09 states that BCBAs have a duty to advocate for an appropriate level of billable hours – including situations in which you are being pressured to bill unnecessarily high hours for a client when they aren’t clinically necessary.

If you have experienced burnout, tell us your story in the comments below. Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]

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