Does ‘burnout’ affect a worker’s ability to follow safe work procedures?

| September 9, 2018

Burnout has long been considered a workplace hazard but can often be overlooked when assessing risk. A worker exhibiting signs of burnout is certainly less productive, but are they also less safe? Recent research seems to confirm the belief that workers who are emotionally and physically exhausted are less likely to follow safe work procedures.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is typically the result of long work hours coupled with severe job stress. And because it can be chronic in nature, it can have serious long term impacts on worker’s health and performance. On top of this, recent research has found workers suffering from burnout are less safe and significantly more likely to be involved in an incident.

Burnout is typically recognised as having three major components:

Disengagement or withdrawal from the workplace and co-workers.
Cynicism or unsympathetic attitude towards the people and goals they serve.

Are Workers Showing Signs of Burnout Less Safe?

A recent study of US firefighters set out to learn whether burnout impacted a firefighter’s ability to follow required safe work practices, care for and safely use personal protective equipment (PPE), and communicate and report safety concerns.

The study clearly found that burnout led to diminished safety performance, and that firefighters suffering from burnout were far less likely to exhibit compliance oriented and self-protective behaviours.

This included less desire to voice safety concerns, to use PPE properly, and to perform their work in a routinely safe manner.

The researchers also studied the extent to which work stress and family conflict impact on burnout. While they found work stress and family conflict were not directly linked to poor safety practices, they did find that they led to burnout over time.

Another study from the American Society of Safety Engineers found those “who exhibited burnout symptoms at least once a month saw a 19 per cent increase in their risk of serious injury as compared with people who experienced burnout symptoms less often.

What Can be Done to Prevent Burnout?

The most effective way to prevent burnout is to create a working environment that promotes comfortable working conditions with reasonable working hours. Workers should have a clear expectation of what their role requires, and should receive ongoing support from superiors.