Short Report: Psychological Safety Leads in the Protection against Burnout

The syndrome of burnout may be enemy number one in the global workforce. Of the many interventions to curb it, an economical one may be to strengthen the sense of connectedness between employees and leaders. In this endeavor, psychological safety emerges as the most promising ingredient. Find out how that works, here.

Author: Tyler Phillips, Research Psychologist and Lead Content Specialist

Last quarter, we reported on the significance of a few different behaviors that enable our connectedness with others. These ‘Connectors’ include:

  • affective empathy (the ability to feel what and how others are feeling), 
  • cognitive empathy (the ability to understand what and how others are thinking), 
  • empathetic response style (when members of a team relate to, and show consideration of, each other’s emotions while working together), and
  • psychological safety (feeling free to voice opinions, which, congruent with scientific literature, means doing so without the fear of negative consequences). 

In both reports – the one exploring the interaction between affective empathy and empathetic response style, and the one comparing the strength of cognitive empathy and psychological safety – the outcome was resilience. In other words, improving these Connectors was shown to improve resilience in those samples. Remember that resilience represents, in a broad sense, our ability to cope well with stressors, challenges, and obstacles. Because of this, resilience appears to be one potential antidote to, or protection from, clinical syndromes that result from experiencing great amounts of stress. One of these syndromes is burnout. We actually also illustrated in the last quarter – in a data-driven report and thought-leadership article – just how resilience goes about protecting us against burnout. 

Given these relationships, it makes sense that these Connectors would also show some promise in protecting us from burnout. Supporting this presumption, other research out there has separately established how things like psychological safety and ‘feeling heard at work’ (which we might interpret as empathetic response style) do indeed protect us from burning out. (These two Connectors are quite related, but they are distinct. For example, a person can feel free to speak up at work, but can also feel that what they say won’t necessarily be taken up, actioned, or ‘heard’ by leadership.) What becomes important to figure out, then, is to what extent each of these Connectors is protective. Which one might provide the biggest ‘immunization’ against burnout? And what might that show us about how to optimize our professional engagement with each other – and at the same time, to optimize the health of our brain-body systems?

We turn again to our data. In a sample of over 550 individuals (with a wide age range, balanced gender distribution, and broad dispersion across industries), we compared how the four Connectors predict scores on our measure of burnout risk. The results of this analysis are in the graph below: 

NZ_Branded graph_Significant Predictors of (Reducing) Burnout

Note the following: 

  • Firstly, affective empathy is absent from the chart. This means that, in our analysis of this particular sample, affective empathy did not emerge as a statistically significant predictor of burnout. That doesn’t necessarily mean that affective empathy does not affect burnout. It could simply mean that in this sample, the data was not ‘strong enough’ to confirm the relationship, but in another sample, the data could be. Hence, we conduct ongoing research on these factors.
  • Secondly, the other three Connectors – cognitive empathy, empathetic response style, and psychological safety – all separately predict burnout. 
  • Thirdly, their predictive strengths are different: Empathetic response style is a stronger predictor of (i.e., has a larger positive effect on) burnout than cognitive empathy, but psychological safety is the strongest predictor out of all three Connectors.

What this means for organizations is this: If leaders want to protect their staff from burnout, there are many options available, but a lot of them (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy, learning and skills training, coping interventions) tend to be rather costly in both time and money. However, a potentially less costly strategy may be having conversations with employees to assess, and improve, the sense of psychological safety in the organization. This report demonstrates that, statistically, it is at least a good place to start. 

How might this play out, from a brain-body system perspective? Well, when we develop concerns, fears, doubts, and insecurities on the job – for example, because of organizational restructuring or strategy redirections – these uneasy feelings may represent a form of stress (or the potential for stress). Resolving these feelings often won’t be accomplished by keeping them to ourselves or ‘bottling them up’; rather, we need to air them out. Doing so, we can get clarity or reassurance, or we can even help the organization avoid a potential mistake or approach a potential opportunity that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. However, if we feel that it is unsafe to air those opinions (because, according to scientific literature, we might feel that we’ll be punished in some way if we do), then that not only keeps our experience of stressors bottled up, but it actually adds to them. Feeling unsafe, in itself, sets off the stress response. At some point, our systems will not be able to contain the build-up of stress that has no safe outlet, and so, eventually, we burn out.   

Having the sense that it is safe to speak our minds (that we won’t be shot down or scolded when we do speak up) removes a stressor that is also a gatekeeper for the airing out of other stressors. Through psychological safety, we have a means of pressure release. From a slightly different angle, feeling isolated from others also provokes our stress response. So does conflict, a sense of “you versus me”. Feeling connected to others – and feeling that even if there are differing opinions, they are being shared among a united “us” – is facilitated by psychological safety. In this way, unhealthy levels of stress (from isolation and/or conflict) are kept at bay. 

Let’s not forget, however, that it is not only psychological safety that can reduce stress and protect us from burnout. As mentioned, sometimes employees do feel safe enough to voice their opinions, but they don’t really feel heard when they speak up, because leadership consistently does not take action regarding what is raised. This scenario has also been shown to increase the chances of burnout. Hence it is also important, for the purposes of reducing employee stress and the attendant risk for burnout, to cultivate empathetic response style. Working together when decision-making, with a demonstrable awareness of each other’s feelings, may increase the sense of being heard. Also, getting better at understanding what is going through each other’s minds – that is, enhancing cognitive empathy – may facilitate that process. 

Each of the three Connectors can achieve a reduction to employees’ risk for burnout – in ways that are distinct, but not disconnected. They are, after all, about mitigating the stress-provoking feelings of being out there, in a volatile and uncertain world, on our own. 

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