More Pain Than Gain: Effort–Reward Imbalance, Burnout, and Withdrawal Intentions Within a University Student Population

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Abstract

Despite the widespread prevalence of psychological distress that affects many higher education students, existing student-stress research remains largely atheoretical. To address this gap, this paper applies Siegrist’s (1996) effort-reward imbalance model in a theoretical investigation of student stress. We surveyed Australian university students (N = 2,451) to identify whether discrepancies between efforts expended and rewards obtained influence student-distress outcomes (e.g., withdrawal/departure intentions). More than one-third of the students (37.5%) reported detrimental effort-reward imbalances, and these imbalances positively correlated with burnout and withdrawal intentions. Ultimately, burnout fully mediated the relationship between effort-reward imbalance and withdrawal intentions for both first-year and subsequent-year students. Unexpectedly, student resilience did not moderate these relationships. In light of these results, implications pertaining to the conceptualization and management of student distress and attrition are offered.

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