In issue 7 of Frontline Matterswe looked at burnout – how to recognise it and how it affects safety. The article referred to a scientific study examining the relationship between work stress, work-family conflict, burnout and safety behaviour outcomes in US firefighters. Here, we dig a little deeper into the study and what it has to say that could resonate with managers in the UK transport sector.

The study, published in 2018, examined these relationships in a group of US firefighters. It tested for a statistically significant relationship between work stress and work-family conflict and ‘burnout’, and then tested whether a similar link exists between burnout and compliance with safety rules such as wearing the right personal protective equipment (PPE) and reporting safety concerns.

For the purposes of the study, ‘burnout’ was defined as a state made up of exhaustion, depersonalisation and cynicism. Exhaustion means a decrease of energy to perform work; depersonalisation happens when someone disengages from their work; and cynicism is characterised by unsympathetic attitudes towards customers and co-workers.

Over 200 participants were invited to complete a series of questionnaires, responding to statements which tested levels of work stress, work-family conflict and burnout. Statistical analysis of the data showed that an increase in work stress was positively associated with an increase in work-family conflict. Furthermore, that both were positively associated with an increase in symptoms of burnout.

These findings were then tested against data gathered from participants on how well they were complying with personal protective equipment requirements, safe working practices and safety reporting. The researchers found that a higher incidence of burnout was linked to lower levels of compliance with these desired safety behaviours. In other words, those suffering burnout were less likely to comply with PPE requirements, follow safe working practices or report safety concerns.

An interesting element to the findings is that it wasn’t work stress or work-family conflict themselves that affected safety behaviours. However, if they led to burnout, it was this which impacted negatively on the safety behaviours being tested.

What does this mean? 

While it’s not possible to transpose these findings and conclusions directly into the transport sector, it does provide some food for thought. Many job roles in transport are stressful, involve safety critical activities and require high levels of compliance with safety rules and positive safety behaviours. It may be that the same positive relationships exist between stress, burnout and diminished safety performance. At the very least, it suggests that positive action to tackle the causes and symptoms of burnout may help mitigate against behavioural safety risks.

The paper ‘Assessment of relationships between work stress, work-family conflict, burnout and firefighter safety behaviour outcomes’ by Smith et al, is published in Safety Science 103 (2018) 287-292. It can be purchased at https://www.journals.elsevier.com/safety-science