In Brief

  • Professional burnout plays a significant role in workplace safety.

  • As the details of this relationship emerge, so do risk management opportunities for safety professionals.

  • This article provides the medical definition of burnout, highlights pertinent connections between workplace safety and professional burnout, and outlines interventions to improve both.

Burnout is widespread and detrimental to employees and organizations. Four decades ago, studies suggested that burnout existed primarily in professions that are especially emotionally challenging, such as medicine, social work and law (Maslach & Jackson, 1987). Research has since documented burnout in nearly every field (see sidebar, "Who Is At Risk for Burnout?" on p. 47).

Burnout is characterized by three traits, often measured using a version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) (Maslach & Jackson, 1981):

  • Emotional exhaustion: Often accompanied by physical exhaustion and cognitive weariness.

  • Depersonalization: Others are perceived as or treated as objects. Depersonalization can manifest as social withdrawal, flat or irritable responses to others or as cynicism.

  • Inefficacy: One's efforts are felt to no longer have value or to make a difference.

Emotional exhaustion and depersonalization are the most important symptoms of burnout as they are associated with various adverse outcomes, both for the individual and the enterprise for which s/he works.

The cause of burnout is complicated. It is the result of an individual's attempt to cope with excessive and prolonged stress. Because burnout is caused by both individual and work/life factors, an ideal approach to prevention includes not only organizational systems but also strategies to address personal skills for managing stressful work/life environments.

Burnout & Severe Injury

Burnout increases the rates of severe injury, both on and off the job. Ahola, Salminen, Toppinen-Tanner, et al. (2013), examined the rate of severe injuries (leading to hospitalization or death) in more than 10,000 forest products workers in Finland. All citizens in Finland have one national health registry number throughout their lives, which allows researchers to collect data on severe injuries occurring both at work and elsewhere over a period of 8 years. These injury rates were then compared to the workers' MBI scores.

Ahola, et al. (2013), found that for each unit increase in the MBI score, there was a 10% increase in the risk for severe injuries. This association held true for both the exhaustion and cynicism ratings. Even more concerning is that when the results were divided into groups based on how frequently burnout symptoms were experienced, those who experienced burnout symptoms at least once a month saw a 19% increase in their risk of serious injury as compared to people who experienced burnout symptoms less often. The researchers concluded that "burnout is a risk factor for future severe all-cause injuries."

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