Burnout in Landcare:
A Summary of findings from the Shepparton Irrigation Region

Ian Byron, Allan Curtis, Michael Lockwood


Australians have invested heavily in voluntary approaches to the management of environmental problems. Landcare is an important delivery mechanism for commonwealth and state government programs, including the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT). Whilst Landcare is an Australian success story, recent research suggests we may be approaching the limits of voluntary action (Curtis 2000). Rural people have limited time, the NHT and other programs have geared up Landcare activity and ongoing program management issues threaten to undermine the effectiveness of Landcare (Curtis 1999). The research summarised in the article suggests that these factors are contributing to burnout in Landcare participants.

While the term burnout has been used frequently in reference to Landcare, previous research has only provided anecdotal evidence of burnout. This article provides a brief summary of the authorís research in the Shepparton Irrigation Region (SIR) that for the first time used a valid and reliable tool to assess the extent of and identify factors associated with burnout in Landcare participants (Byron et al. 2000). The survey sample consisted of 300 members, randomly selected from 32 Landcare groups (with a total membership of more than 1200), and a census of all group leaders (88) from the 47 Landcare groups in the SIR.

Burnout involves a process where continued exposure to stressful situations leads to a syndrome characterised by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment (Maslach et al. 1996). Research in the SIR used a modified version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) which is the most widely used and accepted burnout measurement tool (Schaufeli et al. 1993). The MBI does not produce a single score, rather it produces three scores, one for each element of burnout: emotional exhaustion (where a high score indicates high burnout); depersonalisation (where a high score indicates high burnout); and personal accomplishment (where a low score indicates high burnout). The modified version of the MBI used in the SIR was found to be both valid and reliable (Byron et al. 2000).

A Summary of Findings

At present the majority of respondents in the SIR do not appear to be experiencing high levels of burnout. Over 80% of respondents had scores that indicated high burnout on personal accomplishment (where high burnout indicates a reduced sense of accomplishment). However, high burnout on personal accomplishment alone does not in itself indicate high burnout overall. Fewer than 10% of respondents were considered to have scores on emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation that indicated high burnout (Byron et al. 2000).

Despite the finding of generally low burnout, there is no room for complacency as survey findings indicate considerable potential for burnout to increase rapidly. Landcare activity has been geared up through the NHT, and many groups are operating at historically high levels of activity (Curtis 2000). This assertion is supported by research findings that 36% of SIR respondents indicated the past year was at least as active as their most active year in terms of the time and effort committed to Landcare. Comparisons of respondentís Landcare group activity levels pre and post NHT provided additional support suggesting that Landcare activity had increased post NHT. For example, 52% of respondents in the SIR indicated their most active year was in the two years post NHT compared with 25% for the two years prior to the NHT.

Survey data confirms Curtisí (2000) earlier concerns about the capacity to sustain current high levels of Landcare group activity. Higher activity was the most important contributor to high burnout on emotional exhaustion (t=3.91, p<0.001).

The association of higher burnout on emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishment with the presence of ongoing Landcare group management issues further highlights concerns about the potential for burnout to increase. Higher emotional exhaustion was significantly associated with respondents who considered that their group leaders had been ineffective (t=3.14, p=0.002) and those who felt that important tasks were not completed (t=2.11, p=0.036). High burnout on the personal accomplishment sub-scale was associated with respondents who reported that their group did not have established priorities for group activity (t=2.47, p=0.014). These variables have been identified as ongoing Landcare group management issues across the state of Victoria (Curtis 2000), and burnout in Landcare participants, can be expected to increase with increased and/or continued exposure to them.

Analysis of SIR survey data highlighted the high proportion of respondents experiencing low levels of personal accomplishment indicative of high burnout. High levels of on-farm work were most strongly associated with high burnout on this sub-scale. Survey respondents reported high levels of on-farm work with a mean of 50 hours per week. Thirty per cent of respondents also worked off-property with a mean of 30 hours per week. On-farm or off-farm work was considered the most important factor in accounting for changes in the level of a respondentís Landcare activity over time. In addition, respondents in the SIR also reported high family commitments (52 per cent) and substantial commitments to other volunteer organisations (36 per cent) as factors affecting their level of Landcare activity.


The community Landcare program has assumed an important role in delivering improved environmental outcomes in Australia. The scale of issues facing Landcare groups is immense, and despite high levels of activity, Landcare participants are making little headway in reversing land degradation. The lack of personal accomplishment felt by Landcare participants suggests the need to revise the expectations of Landcare groups, particularly that they can deliver onground outcomes for large programs. As Campbell (1997) indicated, Landcare groups should not be expected to reverse environmental degradation. Campbell (1997, p.151) thought the role of Landcare groups was to act as a catalyst and create demand for change and believed that Ďwithout complementary policy changes in the wider political and economic environment, the good will and commitment fostered by Landcare groups is likely to wither.í Through the NHT, the Australian government has geared up Landcare activity. At the same time, there has been a reduction in state agency extension support for groups, placing even greater workloads on volunteer Landcare participants.

We therefore need to articulate realistic expectations of Landcare groups and their volunteer participants. Curtis and Lockwood (2000) suggested that the most important roles for local groups are:

  • to mobilise participation;

  • initiate and support learning;

  • pull-down resources to support local efforts; and

  • undertake on-ground work to the extent that resources are available.

Individual land managers could be expected to:

  • participate in group activities;

  • establish community priorities; and

  • undertake work on their properties or those of others as time permits.

Individual landholders should not be expected to take leading roles in administering or implementing government funded projects. In an era of two-income families and considerable off-farm work they simply do not have the time.


Byron, I. Curtis, A., & Lockwood, M. 2000. Exploring Burnout In Australiaís Landcare Program: A Case Study In The Shepparton Irrigation Region. In Press Society and Natural Resources.

Campbell, A. 1997. "Facilitating Landcare: Conceptual And Practical Dilemmas." In Critical Landcare, eds. S. Lockie and F. Vanclay, 143-153. Centre for Rural Social Research. Wagga Wagga, Australia: Charles Sturt University.

Curtis, A. 2000. "Landcare: Approaching the limits of voluntary action." Australian Journal of Environmental Management. 7(1): 19-28.

Curtis, A. 1999. "Landcare: Beyond onground work." Natural Resource Management. 2(2): 4-9.

Curtis, A. and Lockwood, M. 2000. "Landcare and Catchment management in Australia: Lessons for State-Sponsored Community Participation." Society and Natural Resources. 13:61-73.

Maslach, C., Jackson, S. and Leiter, M.P. 1996. Maslach Burnout Inventory. (3rd edn). Palo Alto, USA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Schaufeli, W.B., Enzmann, D. and Girault, N. 1993. "Measurement of burnout: A review." In Professional Burnout: Recent Developments in Theory and Research, ed. W.B.

Schaufeli, C. Maslach and T. Marek, 199-212. USA: Taylor and Francis.

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