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Q&A: Which Burnout Interventions Improve Workplace Safety?

Nov 18, 2021
Safety professional woman taking a break at work and experiencing burnout

Burnout is a hot topic in today’s environment. Surveys and studies are surfacing that report widespread burnout across multiple industries and professions. With so many people experiencing burnout, how can organizations leverage their resources to combat this problem and what role should safety professionals play?

Dr. Marnie Loomis, ND, a naturopathic physician and co-author of the book “Save Yourself from Burnout: A System to Get Your Life Back,” says that because burnout impacts workplace safety and health so acutely, safety professionals are well positioned to help their organizations identify risk factors for burnout and advocate for the well-being of their teams with senior leaders.

We spoke with Loomis, who offered lots of practical advice for safety professionals who want to help their organizations reduce burnout in their workplace.

ASSP: Let’s start with the definition of burnout. Is there one widely accepted definition?

Loomis: There is not a definitive definition of burnout — yet. As of 2019, the World Health Organization codified the definition of occupational burnout as "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." The syndrome includes three different symptoms. The feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job or feeling negative or cynical toward one's career and reduced professional productivity. But I can say after studying this topic for so long, there are a lot of nuances there and a lot that isn't exactly captured by that.

Think about it like a car, where the organization is the car and the employees are the tires. If your car is out of alignment, it will put uneven wear on your tires and they’ll wear out faster and in a specific pattern. Now is it the tires' fault? No. Really, it has more to do with the alignment of the car. So, that's what we're looking at with burnout. There's a very strong environmental aspect that is contributing to this disproportionately high level of stress on a person’s body.

ASSP: How has the conversation around burnout changed over the years?

Loomis: Burnout initially was a phrase coined by psychologist Herbert Frydenberg in the 1970s to describe this phenomenon he and his staff members were experiencing at a clinic where they were working with people addicted to drugs and other very high-risk individuals. It was a lot of pressure working with a never-ending problem in a setting where it was very difficult to get things to move at all. It started out as an observation: "OK, this must happen, or this seems to be happening mostly in medical and other service-oriented fields." But since then, there have been a number of studies in all different types of workplaces and they found burnout does exist in all professions. Some have it at a much higher rate than others.

ASSP: Do you think that we're experiencing an unprecedented level of organizational burnout right now?

Loomis: That's what the studies that I've seen certainly suggest, And I would say just anecdotally, absolutely yes. Burnout was on the rise even before the pandemic. We went through a period of time during the recession where we were all tightening our belts and doing more with fewer resources. Then we came out of the recession and hadn't quite put back a whole lot of those resources, and then the pandemic hit. So certainly the pandemic rate of burnout among health care professionals has gone up. One study found that healthcare providers in three different countries reported increased burnout. The online staffing company Indeed did a study of 1,500 U.S. workers and they found that burnout was on the rise during the pandemic. They found over half, 52%, of the survey respondents felt that they were experiencing burnout in 2021, up from 43% in their pre-pandemic survey.

ASSP: What are the risk factors of burnout? How can safety and health professionals tell whether it’s something workers are already experiencing?

Gallup did a poll in July 2018 of 7,500 full-time workers and they've produced a really nice look at five factors that were most highly correlated with burnout:

  • Unfair treatment at work
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Lack of role clarity
  • Lack of communication and support from the manager
  • Unreasonable time pressure

All of these things may exist without producing burnout, but it’s when two or more start to coalesce that they become problematic. 

As a safety professional looking to tackle burnout, it’s important to start by just asking your team questions related to those factors: Do you know what's expected of you? Is your role clear? Is your workload manageable? It’s like with Charlie Brown and Lucy in “Peanuts.” She keeps moving the football away — are managers always moving the goal posts? Things like that.

Workers are somewhere on a spectrum between burned out and engaged. And with engagement comes a sense of control, a sense that they have the resources they need to get a job done, will be treated fairly by the management team, have valuable insights to share and will have their work recognized.

ASSP: Is there a correlation between burnout and workplace safety?

Loomis: There was a pretty big study done in 2010 about safety at work. It investigated the link between job demands, job resources, burnout and engagement, and safety outcomes — and the answer is yes. There is definitely a link. I think one of the most notable results came from a healthcare study of 161 hospitals. It was a one-year study where they were measuring levels of nurse burnout against patients' hospital-acquired infections. Hospital leaders increased staffing and improved the nurse-to-patient ratios, and they were able to document a reduction in nurse burnout by 30%. Then, there was a corresponding 30% reduction in infections.

There was also a Finnish study where they were finding that rates of burnout were significantly related to those of severe injury both on and off the job. The participants completed a survey that helps to determine your level of burnout, and they found that for each unit increase in the Maslach Burnout Inventory Score there was a 10% increase in the risk for severe injuries.

We're talking about a very significant relationship between burnout and safety.

As the 2010 study points out, to avoid incidents, injuries and adverse events, employers must create conditions in which workers can thrive.

ASSP: What can safety professionals do if they notice their teams are experiencing burnout? 

Loomis: If a safety professional would like to be effective at treating burnout in the workplace, the first thing they should do is assess themselves for burnout. And if they are experiencing burnout, do something to address it, organizationally or personally.

To address it with the organization, you can start by approaching senior leaders with the six areas of work life that highly impact burnout: Workload, control, community, reward, fairness and values.

First is the overall workload: Is it too much?

Then, looking at the amount of control that someone has, making sure that there's alignment between what the managers think their employees have control over and what the employees think. That is very important.

Third is a sense of community — and that's within the work community, but also a sense of community in their own personal life. That means working in teams where possible, and making sure workers have the time to take care of the things that they need to take care of at home. Part of that is encouraging boundaries and sticking to them.

Then fourth, a sense of reward is important. The reward doesn’t have to be money. Every individual may have different a sense of which reward is most compelling. So if you're in a position where you have the chance to put out a survey to ask, "If we were to reward you for good effort, which of these examples would be most appealing?" you could do that.

Fifth is fairness: Are people treated fairly across the organization? And lastly, the sense of values. Are the values of the organization well known? Are they in line with what workers feel their values are? Is the organization working in a way that reflects those values?

Your organization could also do a burnout inventory. The Maslach Burnout Inventory is something that can be licensed as a formal test, a 22-item survey. If your organization is not able to license that kind of formal survey, then there's a simpler two-question survey that shows a very high degree of correlation with the longer survey. If employees say yes to either or both of these things, there’s a strong indication of burnout. So they yes or no to:

  • "I feel burned out from my work."
  • "I have become more callous toward people since I took this job."

As a safety professional, do whatever you can to establish an awareness of burnout, the factors that can lead to burnout, that addressing burnout is a priority and that reducing those risk factors is important.

ASSP: The book you wrote with former nurse Beth Genly offers a system to help address burnout. What are some of the ways workers, including safety professionals, can help themselves with burnout?

Loomis: When I was burned out, I got frustrated because some of the early things I had tried —like better time management or greater efficiency — were really just putting more focus on and time into my work. And I was feeling worse and worse. But that’s the problem, I had already cut out so many of the other aspects of my life that had been helping to maintain my resilience against burnout. These are things that were protecting me from burnout, but I didn't know that. I was ignoring them to focus more on work.

I looked over just hundreds of studies looking for examples where some people burned out and some people didn't. What were the factors that seemed to make the difference? We used this to create a self-test that makes it easy to identify which aspects of your life are protecting you from burnout and which are making you most vulnerable.

The first thing is to maintain a healthy body. If you're going to be throwing yourself into a work environment with high stress, then do whatever you can to help your body be in a healthy state to deal with that stress.

The second is reflection and recognition. And that's as an individual — what you are doing to reflect on what's meaningful to you — and also how others recognize you day to day.

The third one is community — and this is so important. It's your connection to your community at work, but also your own personal community. Take time to connect with your friends and colleagues. And it doesn't have to be directly about work. In fact, it may be better if it’s not.

Things like mindfulness and meditation also help. Mindfulness, in a nutshell, is about heightening your awareness of everything that's happening in the moment around you in a non-judgmental, non-emotional way. It’s very effective for reducing burnout.

And then look at the structure of how you schedule your day. A lot of times we're doing things over and over again because it's what we did before. It’s taking that step back and saying, “OK, there are only so many things that I can do during the day. Is there a more efficient way?”

I call it the big purse phenomenon. I find if I have a big handbag then I put so much stuff in it that before long, it becomes very heavy. But if I have a smaller handbag, then I still have all of my essential things right at my fingertips, and it's not super heavy. If you look at the responsibilities and resources you really have and allow yourself to be more realistic about your time, you are better able to assess your day and decide which things are really essential.

I say all this knowing that burnout is most often the result of what happens in the workplace, and that individuals — even safety professionals — only have so much control over that aspect of their lives. But if you personally can take steps to help protect yourself a little bit, you will be better able to advocate for others.


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James Rowe
Nice article. 


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