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Belonging Affirmation Reduces Employee Burnout and Resignations in Front Line Workers

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Burnout, an increasingly important challenge in modern workplaces, has been associated with negative health outcomes, high turnover, and poor organization performance. Yet, we have limited causal evidence about how to mitigate its risk. We posit that workers are more susceptible to burnout if they feel undervalued in their roles. Drawing on evidence from educational psychology, we hypothesize that increasing social belonging and support within the undervalued group may reduce workplace identity threat and subsequently affect burnout and turnover. Consistent with these hypotheses, we first find that worker burnout is significantly correlated with feeling undervalued. Second, in a multi-site field experiment (n=536), we find that a six-week intervention that primes social belonging within the low-status group significantly reduces burnout by about 8 points (0.4 SD) and resignations by more than half (3.4 percentage points). Our findings suggest that light-touch belonging-affirmation exercises can improve worker and organizational well-being. Introduction:
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Belonging Affirmation Reduces Employee Burnout
and Resignations in Front Line Workers
Elizabeth Linos, PhD1, assistant professor; Krista Ruffini, MPP, MA1 ; Stephanie
Wilcoxen, MPA2
1 Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley
2 Behavioral Insights Team, Brooklyn, NY
Abstract
Burnout, an increasingly important challenge in modern workplaces, has been associated with
negative health outcomes, high turnover, and poor organization performance. Yet, we have
limited causal evidence about how to mitigate its risk. We posit that workers are more susceptible
to burnout if they feel undervalued in their roles. Drawing on evidence from educational
psychology, we hypothesize that increasing social belonging and support within the undervalued
group may reduce workplace identity threat and subsequently affect burnout and turnover.
Consistent with these hypotheses, we first find that worker burnout is significantly correlated with
feeling undervalued. Second, in a multi-site field experiment (n=536), we find that a six-week
intervention that primes social belonging within the low-status group significantly reduces burnout
by about 8 points (0.4 SD) and resignations by more than half (3.4 percentage points). Our
findings suggest that light-touch belonging-affirmation exercises can improve worker and
organizational well-being.
Keywords: employee burnout, social belonging, turnover, field experiment
Introduction:
Employee burnout -- a workplace syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism,
and reduced personal accomplishment is associated with poor worker health, high turnover,
and poor organizational performance (Borritz, Rugulies, Christensen, Villadsen, & Kristensen,
2006; Salvagioni et al., 2017; Dai, Milkman, Hofmann, & Staats, 2015). Recent evidence suggests
that 1 in 5 employees are burnt out (Wigert & Agrawal, 2018), costing the U.S. health-care system
$125 to $190 billion per year (Goh, Pfeffer, & Zenios, 2016). Among frontline workers like doctors,
social workers, or law enforcement officers, burnout rates can be significantly higher (Garman,
Corrigan, & Morris, 2002; Lloyd, King, & Chenoweth, 2002; Shanafelt et al., 2010; Wallace,
Lemaire, & Ghali, 2009).
While employee burnout appears to generally be on the rise, there is ample evidence that
workplace conditions and job resources correlate with levels of reported burnout. In particular, the
Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model posits that having high levels of social support and strong
relationships can help buffer workers against burnout in environments with high job demands
(Bakker, Demerouti, & Euwema, 2005; Broadhead et al., 1983; Hakanen, Bakker, & Demerouti,
2005). This suggests that social connectedness may be a protective resource against burnout. In
parallel, a separate literature has shown that when people are uncertain about whether they
belong -- when their social connectedness is threatened -- they may view adversity as a threat
to their identity, and subsequently perform poorly (Walton & Cohen, 2007).
A fundamental question then is how to build social connectedness and strengthen workers’ sense
of belonging, particularly for individuals who may face adversity at work. The existing literature
suggests self-affirmation exercises may be one strategy to protect against identity threat. Based
on the theory that people are motivated to protect their sense of self-worth (Steele, 1988), these
techniques ask people to reflect on their values and positive attributes. Affirmation exercises have
been shown to alleviate stress (Creswell et al., 2005), improve academic performance of
stigmatized groups (G. L. Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, Apfel, & Brzustoski, 2009), and reduce
avoidance of potentially threatening health information (Howell & Shepperd, 2012). Recent
evidence also indicates that self-affirmation exercises are most effective when the respondent
reflects on his or her social bonds. For example, when students are asked to affirm their values,
the focus of their reflections often lands spontaneously on valued social relationships (Creswell
et al., 2007). This may be because our sense of identity is often developed as a reflection of social
relationships (Mead 1934). Therefore, explicitly affirming social bonds may shield individuals
against identity threat and reduce the negative impact of adversity on self-worth; social belonging
may be the “key ingredient” of why affirmation exercises are so effective (Shnabel, Purdie-
Vaughns, Cook, Garcia, & Cohen, 2013). Put differently, the education psychology literature
suggests that self-affirmation exercises may be most effective when they are in fact belonging-
affirmation exercises. We build upon this literature by examining whether belonging-affirmation
could mitigate the specific type of identity threat and adversity that people face at work.
We posit that workplace identity threat depends on perceptions of how others view a specific
workplace role. If employees feel undervalued, because they believe others do not understand or
appreciate the role that they play in a work environment, they may be particularly likely to
experience workplace identity threat when facing adversity. If people derive self-worth from their
professional roles, they can also face collective threat when the image of their profession as a
whole is threatened (Cohen & Garcia, 2005). For example, nurses may feel undervalued relative
to physicians in a health setting; administrative staff may feel undervalued relative to tenured
professors in an academic environment; and (in the case we study here) 911 dispatchers may
feel undervalued relative to police officers in law enforcement. This prediction is consistent with
studies that conceptualize devaluation as a form of social rejection that threatens one’s sense of
belonging (Richman & Leary, 2009).
On the other hand, a strong sense of social belonging and support within the undervalued group
may serve as a resource to help workers cope with workplace identity threat. For example, we
know that increasing identification with their own gender group helps women cope with a “chilly
climate” in STEM fields (Walton, Logel, Peach, Spencer, & Zanna, 2015). We hypothesize that
through a similar mechanism, belonging-affirmation exercises will strengthen in-group social
relationships and subsequently reduce worker burnout, especially for workers who face workplace
identity threat.
The population we study, 911 dispatchers, have inherently stressful jobs. These workers answer
approximately 2,400 calls a year (NENA, 2019; BLS, 2018), and often have to make life-or-death
decisions in minutes, while also managing the emotions of call-makers and communicating
quickly and accurately with officers they dispatch. Call dispatchers have been dubbed the
“forgotten victim” when it comes to stress in policing (Sewell & Crew, 1984) because although
they face much of the same trauma as emergency responders or law enforcement officers, they
are considered clerical workers, and so do not get as much formal support, benefits or recognition
for their work. Recent studies report high levels of alcohol abuse, PTSD, and depression among
this population (Lilly, London, & Mercer, 2016). In qualitative interviews, 911 dispatchers and their
supervisors noted that burnout was commonly discussed as “part of the job,” but was also a
common reason why people leave the job.
We conduct two studies to examine the relationships among social belonging, workplace identity
threat and burnout among this population. Study 1 establishes the hypothesized relationship
between burnout and workplace identity threat through a survey of 911 dispatchers in one major
US city (n=129). Study 2 experimentally tests a six-week belonging-affirmation intervention in a
multi-site randomized control trial (n=536), and measures the impact on reported burnout and
turnover over a six month period.
STUDY 1
METHODS
In order to quantify the extent of burnout among 911 dispatchers and to examine the association
between perceived social support and burnout, we sent a survey to all 911 dispatchers and call-
taker in the Los Angeles Police Department, the third largest police force in the United States
(n=532). The response rate on the survey was 30 percent.
Burnout is measured using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) Human Services Survey. The
MBI is a validated questionnaire of 22 items designed to measure burnout on three dimensions:
emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment (Maslach and Jackson,
1981). Respondents receive a score based on a Likert scale for each question. For the purposes
of this analysis, we used a composite score aggregating across the three dimensions, with
“personal accomplishment” reversed so that higher scores are associated with negative
outcomes. This composite measure ranges from 0 to 125 points.
The survey also included questions on social belonging and social support, drawing from previous
studies on social belonging and social support ((Walton & Cohen, 2007); (Wright, Burt, &
Strongman, 2006) (Richer & Vallerand, 1998); (Chen, Gully, & Eden, 2001)). The full
questionnaire can be found in the supplementary information.
Survey responses were also linked to a separate administrative data set of employee
demographics. As such, as we can control for employee gender, race and ethnicity, as well as
tenure on the job. We conduct multivariate regression analysis to examine the association
between perceived social belonging and burnout in this population, controlling for employee
demographic characteristics.
Results
Table 1 below shows the survey population is overwhelmingly (83 percent) female and identifies
as a racial or ethnic minority (83 percent). On average, dispatchers are 40 years old and have
been working in their current role for 13 years. Few are college-educated: 62 percent have no
more than a high school education. The demographics of the population who completed the
survey match the demographics of the overall LAPD dispatcher workforce with no statistically
significant differences in race, gender, education, age, or tenure.
Burnout, particularly on the emotional exhaustion and depersonalization scales, is high among
our study population, both in absolute and relative terms. Almost 43 percent exhibit high levels of
burnout across all measures, and these rates are high relative to those found among other front-
line occupations, including nurses (Greenglass, Burke, & Fiksenbaum, 2001; Poncet et al., 2007),
physicians ((Embriaco, Papazian, Kentish-Barnes, Pochard, & Azoulay, 2007), and teachers
(Hakanen, Bakker, & Schaufeli, 2006).
Table 1: Demographic characteristics
(Study #1)
(1)
All
Male
0.172
(0.378)
White
0.166
(0.373)
Hispanic
0.538
(0.500)
Age
40.040
(9.506)
Years employed
12.910
(8.906)
<= HS education
0.624
(0.486)
MBI score, emotional exhaustion
27.82
(13.21)
MBI score, depersonalization
15.64
(7.622)
MBI score, personal accomplishment
15.73
(8.328)
MBI score, composite
59.14
(23.16)
Observations
129
Table 2 shows that a greater sense of belonging and social support is significantly correlated with
less burnout. In particular, respondents who agreed with the statement “When something bad
happens, I feel that maybe I don’t belong in law enforcement” scored 13 points (0.56 SD) higher
on the MBI scale. In contrast, those who felt that they had a colleague they could speak to scored
13 points (0.57 SD) lower on the MBI scale. This suggests a strong association between
perceptions of burnout and broader social belonging and social support.
Table 2: Correlation between Social Belonging and Burnout
(Study #1)
(1)
(2)
MBI
score
MBI score
When something bad happens,
12.9759**
I feel that maybe I don’t belong in law enforcement.
(5.8339)
There is someone at work I can talk to
13.1566***
about my day to day problems if I need to.
(4.8663)
N
129
129
R-sq
0.0594
0.0690
Average MBI score
59.1860
59.1860
% Agree
0.1473
0.8217
Notes: Table shows the association between perceived social belonging and
support, measured as agreeing with each statement, and burnout, measured as
the composite MBI score among 129 dispatchers in LA county (Study #1). Robust
In order to test the hypothesis that burnout is associated with whether workers believe that others
value their role, we also asked dispatchers whether different groups understand the role that
dispatchers play, and whether other groups value the work they do. Fig.1 shows that while nearly
two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) strongly agreed that other dispatchers understand the role
of dispatchers in public safety, the majority (54 percent) strongly disagreed that the general LA
community understood their role. Perceptions of police officers’ beliefs took a middle ground, with
about half of the sample either moderately or strongly agreeing that police officers understood
PSRs’ roles. This is an important category because police officers are LAPD employees with
whom they interact regularly. In contrast, a much greater share (66 percent) felt valued by other
dispatchers.
Figure 1: Perceptions of Understanding Dispatchers’ Role, by Group
Notes: Figure shows the fraction of respondents in Study #1 disagreeing or agreeing that
other dispatchers (PSR), police officers (PO), or the LA community (LA) understands the
role of dispatchers in law enforcement (N = 129).
In line with our hypothesis, Table 3 shows that a dispatcher’s perception of whether they are
valued and understood is significantly negatively correlated with burnout. Dispatchers who report
feeling understood by police officers and the LA community also report significantly lower levels
of burnout, measured by the MBI scale. It is noteworthy that perceptions of how police officers
view them is a stronger predictor of dispatcher burnout than perceptions of how peers view them.
This suggests that being in a low-status role may be crucial to the link between workplace identity
threat and burnout.
Table 3: Correlation between Feeling Understood and Burnout
(Study #1)
(1)
(2)
(3)
(4)
(5)
Recognize the role of PSRs in public safety
I feel valued by…
PSR
Police officer
Community
PSR
Police officer
Agree
-4.8801
-12.6045***
-23.7869***
-14.6125***
-15.0623***
(6.2668)
(3.9649)
(5.7428)
(4.0552)
(3.6984)
N
129
128
129
129
129
R-sq
0.0232
0.0947
0.1187
0.1153
0.1329
Average MBI score
59.1860
59.3125
59.1860
59.1860
59.1860
% Agree
0.8915
0.6094
0.1008
0.6589
0.5349
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
70%
Strongl y
disagree
Moderately
disagree
Neither
agree n or
disagree
Moderately
agr e e
Strongl y
agr e e
Percent LA dispatchers responding groups
understand PSR's role
PSR PO LA
Notes: Table shows the association between feelings of being understood and valued by each
population in the column header, and burnout, measured as the composite MBI score among 129
dispatchers in LA county (Study #1). Robust standard errors in parentheses.
Although these survey results present a significant correlation between feeling undervalued,
feeling like you belong, and levels of burnout, these results do not establish a causal link between
social belonging and burnout. In order to examine whether promoting social belonging can
causally reduce burnout, Study #2 involved conducting a field experiment in nine mid-sized cities.1
STUDY 2
METHODS
Study #2 aimed to evaluate whether a low-cost, light-touch intervention aiming to affirm belonging
and strengthen the value of the dispatcher profession could reduce self-reported burnout and
increase retention. We collaborated with nine mid-sized US cities to conduct this experiment and
implemented a two-arm randomized controlled trial, stratified by city. All 911 dispatchers that were
employed at the time of randomization were included in the experiment (n=536).
To maximize statistical power, participants in each city were matched into pairs based on the
amount of sick leave they had taken over the previous six months. The research team randomized
members of each pair into treatment or control with equal probability.
A supervisor, or other leader selected by the department, sent weekly emails to the treatment
group in each city over a period of six weeks. Each email (after the first one) included two
components: a story from an existing dispatcher and a prompt nudging workers to reflect on their
common experiences as dispatchers. The emails were framed as an opportunity for participants
to give advice and support to newer dispatchers. The intervention aimed to have dispatchers
affirm social belonging by prompting respondents to consider how dispatchers could support and
provide resources for each other, therefore elevating the value of social belonging to the greater
network. On the online platform, members of the treatment group could read stories submitted by
all other dispatchers. Participants were blinded on the scope and nature of the intervention; the
control group received a simplified version of the first week’s email to inform them of the multi-city
collaboration, but did not receive additional emails. Table 1 in Supplementary Materials provide
complete email language for each week.
We measured the impact of the intervention using both survey burnout and administrative
retention data. The survey was conducted at three points: before the launching of the intervention,
immediately following the six-week intervention, and four months later. Administrative records
were collected for this full period as well. Fig. 2 outlines the timing of the intervention and follow-
up period.
1 Cities include Albuquerque, Cambridge, Glendale, Greensboro, Mesa, Portland, Salt Lake City, Tempe,
and West Palm Beach.
Figure 2: Social Belonging Intervention
(Study #2) Timing
Notes: Figure shows the timeline for the multi-city social belonging intervention. See text
for details.
Burnout is measured by the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI), a validated survey consisting
of 19 questions in personal-, work-, and client-related burnout categories.2 Participants receive a
score ranging from 0 to 100 based on a Likert scale for each question. We report on all three sub-
categories, as well as on total composite score immediately following the six-week intervention
and four months after the intervention had ended. We measured sick leave use and turnover over
the six-week treatment period and full six-month (24 weeks) period through March 2018 using
administrative data from each city. In the final survey, we also asked respondents whether they
felt their work provided a sense of personal accomplishment; whether they felt they had the skills
necessary for their position; and whether they felt connected to other dispatchers.
All statistical analyses were conducted using Ordinary Least Squares. For each individual i in city
c at time t, we measured the effect of the intervention on burnout and resignations,  as:
 =  + . ′ + + 
 is a binary variable equal to one if the individual was assigned treatment; ′ is a vector
of baseline demographic characteristics: race, gender, tenure, and pre-period leave; is a vector
2 We used the shorter CBI rather than the MBI for this population in order to minimize response burden and
cost to cities. Previous work has documented the two indices are highly correlated (Kristensen, Borritz,
Villadsen, & Christensen, 2005; Winwood & Winefield, 2004).
of city fixed effects;  is an i.i.d. error term. All inference is conducted using Eicker-Huber-White
robust standard errors.
In exploratory analysis, we also conducted subgroup analysis by gender and race. We are limited
to only exploring racial and gender differences using the survey data, given that not all cities
maintain demographic information in their administrative data.
RESULTS
Table 4, Panel A shows the mean baseline characteristics of all participants, separated by
treatment and control group. In cities for which demographic information is available in the
administrative data, more than three quarters of the sample is female, and nearly 80 percent is
white. Our sample is more female than the national average (54 percent), but similar on racial
composition. On average, participants had nearly 10 years of tenure and took an average of 1.5
hours of sick leave a week in the six months before the trial began. Chi-squared tests on each
variable confirm that treatment and control are balanced across these characteristics.
The average response rate across the interim and final burnout surveys was 28.6 percent. Table
4, Panels B and C show the treatment and control groups have similar demographic
characteristics in both survey waves, and these characteristics are also similar to the full
participant sample. These patterns mitigate concerns that change in reported burnout is not due
to systematic differences in who takes the survey, but rather reflects change in underlying burnout
in the treatment group.
Table 4: Demographic and baseline characteristics by treatment group
(Study #2)
(1)
(2)
(3)
(4)
All
Control
Treatment
p
Panel A: All trial participants
Female
0.776
0.797
0.757
0.355
(0.417)
(0.404)
(0.430)
White
0.799
0.794
0.804
0.860
(0.402)
(0.407)
(0.399)
Years employed
9.140
8.710
9.555
0.324
(8.369)
(8.054)
(8.662)
Average pre-trial weekly sick hours
1.484
1.473
1.494
0.878
(1.602)
(1.708)
(1.495)
Observations
536
265
271
536
Panel B: Interim CBI burnout survey
Female
0.844
0.832
0.865
0.583
(0.365)
(0.376)
(0.345)
White
0.714
0.716
0.712
0.957
(0.453)
(0.453)
(0.457)
Years employed
11.220
10.800
12.010
0.397
(8.189)
(8.196)
(8.199)
Observations
147
95
52
147
Panel C: Final CBI burnout survey
Female
0.815
0.814
0.815
0.982
(0.390)
(0.391)
(0.391)
White
0.730
0.724
0.738
0.845
(0.445)
(0.450)
(0.443)
Years employed
11.900
11.000
13.090
0.144
(8.492)
(7.823)
(9.231)
Observations
152
87
65
152
Notes: This table reports means and standard deviations of the full (Study #2) sample in Panel A,
and interim (final) burnout survey respondents in Panel B (C). Columns (1)-(4) describe trial
participants -- the full ITT sample. Columns (5)-(8) describe those who remained employed
through the full trial. Column (1) summarizes the full sample, and columns (2) and (3) describe
the control and treatment groups, respectively. Column (4) reports p-values for the null
hypothesis of perfect randomization.
Table 5 presents the main burnout findings. Immediately after the trial ended, treated employees
reported lower levels of burnout, although differences are not statistically significant (panel A). Six
months after the first email was sent, however, the social belonging intervention appears to have
caused a significant reduction in burnout for each of the sub-categories and the composite score
(panel B). These coefficients are large in magnitude and statistically significant; the intervention
reduced personal-related burnout by about 9 points, work-related burnout by 7 points, and client-
related burnout by approximately 9 points. The composite burnout index fell more than 8 points,
or more than 0.4 standard deviations. This is similar in magnitude to the difference in average
reported burnout between social workers and administrative staff in other studies (Kristensen,
Borritz, Villadsen, & Christensen, 2005).
Table 5: Copenhagen Burnout Index, Full Sample
(Study #2)
(1)
(2)
(3)
(4)
Own
Work
Client
Total
Panel A: Interim
(after all emails sent)
Treatment
-5.815
-3.908
-0.976
-3.566
(3.782)
(3.998)
(4.114)
(3.621)
Observations
147
147
147
147
Control group mean
55.8596
50.708
42.675
49.748
Effect size
-0.279
-0.167
-0.042
-0.178
R-squared
0.211
0.196
0.213
0.236
Panel B: Final
(4 months after all emails sent)
Treatment
-8.935**
-7.008*
-9.194**
-8.379**
(3.448)
(3.724)
(4.150)
(3.368)
Observations
152
152
152
152
Control group mean
56.734
55.049
44.109
51.964
Effect size
-0.429
-0.300
-0.395
-0.418
R-squared
0.356
0.337
0.318
0.345
Notes: This table reports OLS coefficient estimates robust standard errors
in parentheses). The dependent variable is the burnout score, either by
subindex (columns (1) - (3)) or overall (column (4)). Burnout score ranges
from 0 to 100. Panel (A) reports scores immediately after the final email
was sent in Study #2; Panel (B) reports scores 4 months after the final
email was sent. Treatment is a dummy for the social support treatment.
All specifications include demographic controls for race, gender, tenure,
as well as city fixed effects. * p < 0.10, ** p < 0.05, *** p < 0.01.
Table 6 presents the key resignation findings. We find that the intervention reduced resignations
among employees who remained employed throughout the intervention (i.e. those exposed to the
full treatment) by 3.4 percentage points in the four months post-intervention, relative to a control
group mean of 5.1 percent (column 1). This result is unchanged when we include controls for
demographic characteristics and fixed effects for each city, confirming that the randomization
process was successful. When we include resignations that happened during the intervention in
columns (3) and (4), point estimates suggest a smaller reduction in resignations and the effect
become statistically insignificant. As we discuss below, this apparent lagged response may be
due to requirements around providing notices of leave or the cumulative effect of receiving
additional emails. In results available upon request, we do not find any significant difference in
sick leave use.
Table 6: Resignations, by Treatment Dosage
(Study #2)
(1)
(2)
(3)
(4)
VARIABLES
Resigned
Resigned
Resigned
Resigned
Treat
-0.0344**
-0.0338**
-0.0194
-0.0170
[0.0155]
[0.0156]
[0.0188]
[0.0189]
Observations
511
511
536
536
Sample
Full trial
participants
Full trial
participants
Trial
participants
Trial
participants
R-squared
0.054
0.059
0.026
0.036
City FE
No
Yes
No
Yes
Additional
demographic
controls
No
Yes
No
Yes
Control group
mean
0.0508
0.0508
0.0604
0.0604
Notes: This table reports OLS coefficient estimates (robust standard errors in
brackets). The dependent variable is a binary variable equal to 1 if the employee
resigned his or her position in Study #2. Columns (1) and (2) includes all employees
assigned treatment or control; columns (3) and (4) limit the sample to those who
remained employed throughout the trial (week 7 post-
randomization). All
specifications include controls for pre-period leave; columns 2 and 4 additionally
include city fixed effects and demographic controls for race, gender, and tenure.
* p < 0.10, ** p < 0.05, *** p < 0.01.
Fig. 3 presents a Kaplan-Meier curve illustrating that treatment group resignations exceeded
those of the control group in the first few weeks of the trial (although not significantly), but in the
four months post-intervention resignations remained relatively flat for the treatment group, but
continued to increase among control group members. In additional results, we confirm these
findings are not driven by the experiences of any single city.
Figure 3: Kaplan-Meier Survival Plot for number of employees resigning their position by
treatment assignment
(Study #2)
If building social support reduces identity threat, we should observe particularly large reductions
among groups most susceptible to identity threat. Consistent with this hypothesis, in exploratory
analysis we find suggestive evidence that females and employees of color (employees identifying
as a racial/ethnic group other than non-Hispanic white) experienced particularly large reductions
in burnout on all scales (Table 7).
Table 7: Final Copenhagen Burnout Index Survey, by Gender and Race/Ethnicity
(Study #2)
(1)
(2)
(3)
(4)
Own
Work
Client
Total
Panel A: All workers
Treatment
-8.935**
-7.008*
-9.194**
-8.379**
(3.448)
(3.724)
(4.150)
(3.368)
Observations
152
152
152
152
Control group mean
56.734
55.049
44.109
51.964
R-squared
0.356
0.337
0.318
0.345
Panel B: Female employees
Treatment
-10.84***
-9.763**
-10.24**
-10.28***
(3.860)
(4.032)
(4.769)
(3.720)
Observations
123
123
123
123
Control group mean
61.23
59.03
46.25
55.50
R-squared
0.308
0.312
0.373
0.369
Panel C: Non-white employees
Treatment
-17.85
-10.88
-22.80
-17.18
(12.69)
(14.42)
(14.26)
(12.82)
Observations
41
41
41
41
Control group mean
56.42
52.83
44.97
51.41
R-squared
51.41
0.337
0.318
0.476
Notes: This table reports OLS coefficient estimates robust standard errors in
parentheses). The dependent variable is the burnout score 4 months after the final email
was sent, either by subindex (columns (1) - (3)) or overall (column (4)). Burnout score
ranges from 0 to 100. Panel (A) reports scores for the full sample in Study #2; Panel (B)
reports scores for female employees; Panel (C) reports scores for employees identifying
as non-white or Hispanic. Treatment is a dummy for the social support treatment. All
specifications include demographic controls for race, gender, tenure, as well as city fixed
effects. * p < 0.10, ** p < 0.05, *** p < 0.01.
In order to directly examine possible mechanisms for these findings, we included three key
questions enquiring about employees’ perceived sense of personal accomplishment at work, their
understanding of their own skills, and perceived connectedness to colleagues in the final survey
(Table 8). While point estimates suggest the treatment improved well-being, particularly among
women and employees of color (panels (B) and (C)), these findings are only significant for
employees of color. Although suggestive, these findings are consistent with our hypothesis: that
the intervention reduced identity threat and bolstered self-worth by strengthening workers’ sense
of social belonging and support. We note, however, that sub-group samples are small and we
lack statistical precision to make decisive statements on this point. Future research could explicitly
test for differential effects of this type of workplace intervention in samples with greater gender
and racial diversity.
Table 8: Perceived Accomplishment, Skills, and Connectiveness by Gender and
Race/Ethnicity (Study #2)
(1)
(2)
(3)
Accomplishment
Skills
Connection
Panel A: All workers
Treatment
4.733
1.031
0.0504
(4.499)
(2.700)
(4.587)
Observations
152
152
152
Control group mean
64.66
84.77
67.24
R-squared
0.218
0.118
0.117
Panel B: Female employees
Treatment
8.525
4.597
2.685
(5.256)
(3.026)
(5.272)
Observations
123
123
123
Control group mean
61.43
83.21
65
R-squared
0.237
0.123
0.133
Panel C: Non-white employees
Treatment
21.36**
7.488
16.54*
(9.565)
(6.691)
(8.526)
Observations
41
41
41
Control group mean
67.71
85.42
62.50
R-squared
0.600
0.454
0.710
Notes: This table reports OLS coefficient estimates robust standard errors in parentheses).
The dependent variable is self-
reported sense of accomplishment (column (1)); skills
(column (2)); and connectiveness (column (3)) 4 months after the final email was sent (Study
#2). Score ranges from 0 to 100. Panel (A) reports scores for the full sample; Panel (B)
reports scores for female employees; Panel (C) reports scores for employees identifying as
non-white or Hispanic. Treatment is a dummy for the social su
pport treatment. All
specifications include demographic controls for race, gender, tenure, as well as city fixed
effects. * p < 0.10, ** p < 0.05, *** p < 0.01.
DISCUSSION
The education psychology literature has established that the strength of one’s social relationships
and sense of belonging affects numerous outcomes. Yet, while the importance of belonging at
work and the alarming rise in burnout have both been widely recognized, there is limited evidence
that combines the psychological evidence around self-affirmation and belonging with the
organizational research on burnout. Our studies show a strong relationship between feeling
undervalued, low levels of social belonging, and high burnout at work. In an important contribution,
we conduct a field experiment which, to our knowledge, is the largest of its kind, and find that a
low-cost belonging-affirmation intervention can substantially reduce burnout and resignations.
This research makes several contributions to the literature. First, we provide causal evidence that
emphasizing social relationships within an undervalued group reduces burnout and turnover. This
helps inform how job demands and job resources interact at work and provides causal evidence
for the Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model. We also document that facilitating greater job
resources can have persistent effects, and these benefits translate into improved organizational
performance in the medium-term. The reported rise in burnout has received significant attention
in both academic journals and practitioner press. Yet, previous reviews note that almost all studies
of burnout interventions are correlational (Maslach & Schaufeli, 2017) and that the existing RCTs
show mixed evidence (Westermann, Kozak, Harling, & Nienhaus, 2014). This may be because
many of the observational studies and RCTs involve small samples (usually fewer than 100
people), short interventions, limited follow-up, and self-reported outcomes (Awa, Plaumann, &
Walter, 2010). This study provides both methodological and substantive contributions to the
existing literature by using a much larger sample, testing a virtual light-touch intervention, and
measuring both self-reported well-being and actual employee behavior for a relatively longer
period.
Finally, this study contributes to the broader literature on self-affirmation. Written reflections about
work have been associated with decreased stress and improved well-being (Bono, Glomb, Shen,
Kim, & Koch, 2013) and advice-giving seems to be most beneficial to the advice-giver (Eskreis-
Winkler, Milkman, Gromet, & Duckworth, 2019; Belle, 2014). Recent studies suggest that
relationships can be built through reciprocal sharing, even online (Carpenter & Greene, 2015). By
nudging workers to reflect on their relationship with peers and their professional identity and read
one another’s stories, this study tests how the tools of belonging-affirmation can be used to protect
employees against burnout.
We find reductions in burnout increase over time and the effect of our intervention on resignations
is clearest in the medium-term, post-intervention period. There are several explanations for this
finding. First, as employees are required to give at least two weeks advance notice on
resignations, it is likely that the resignations that occurred in the first weeks of the intervention
reflect decisions that happened pre-intervention, and so we expect to not observe a treatment
effect in early weeks. However, it is also possible that multiple emails (a more intensive
intervention) are required for the treatment to alter perceived self-worth and belonging, and
therefore, resignations. If there is path dependence in developing a sense of belonging, it is logical
that effects should appear over time and not immediately after an intervention ends (Yeager &
Walton, 2011). Future studies will need to further explore the relationship between burnout and
resignations to disentangle these explanations. Another limitation of the study is that we do not
capture spillovers to control group members. If improving the work environment for half of a
dispatch center benefits non-treated employees in the center as well, our estimates understate
the full effect of introducing such a social-belonging intervention organization-wide. Last, to
maintain anonymity, we do not know whether active participation (e.g., sharing stories) provides
larger benefits than passive participation (e.g., receiving emails).
The study has clear implications for policymakers and practitioners. First, in the ongoing debate
about whether burnout is best addressed at the individual- or systems-level (see for example
Wallace et al., 2009), we examine an effective behaviorally-informed intermediary solution where
systems are set up for individuals to support each other. Second, the study shows meaningful
cost savings for organizations due to reductions in turnover: scaling this nearly zero-cost
intervention to all employees could save a city with 100 dispatchers more than $170,000, or
approximately three full-time equivalent staff, per year. More broadly, given that workplace stress
is associated with more than 120,000 deaths per year and more than 5 percent of annual health
care costs in the U.S., encouraging a greater sense of social belonging may provide additional
savings that are not captured in this calculation (Goh et al., 2016). Future research should also
consider whether an intervention that successfully reduces burnout can have causal impacts on
daily decision-making. Ultimately, this study contributes to a growing literature demonstrating the
power and feasibility of running behaviorally-informed field experiments in real organizations on
real organizational outcomes (Hauser, Linos, & Rogers, 2017; Pfeffer, Pfeffer, & Sutton, 2000).
Our results suggest that even low-cost approaches to improving employees’ work experience can
meaningfully benefit both employees and their organizations.
Author Contributions
EL developed the study concept and study design, and coordinated approval with partner
agencies. KR performed data analysis. SW was responsible for data collection and trial
implementation. All authors interpreted the data, drafted the manuscript and approved the final
version of the manuscript for submission.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared that there were no conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship or
the publication of this article.
Open Practices
Study 1 is part of a larger ongoing experiment that is pre-registered on the aspredicted.org
platform (#25812). Study 2 is registered on the Open Science Framework portal at
https://osf.io/mc49d/. Data for both studies belongs to government agencies and because of the
nature of employee data and the data sharing agreement that allowed for this project, any
requests for the data should be directed to the relevant government agencies. The materials used
are available in the appendix and any requests for the scripts used for the analysis can be sent
via email to the lead author at [removed for anonymity purposes].
Ethical Considerations
The study was reviewed and received IRB approval at UC Berkeley (Protocol ID # 2017-05-9957)
but was designed as a quality improvement study for the cities involved.
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In a randomized-controlled trial, we tested 2 brief interventions designed to mitigate the effects of a "chilly climate" women may experience in engineering, especially in male-dominated fields. Participants were students entering a selective university engineering program. The social-belonging intervention aimed to protect students' sense of belonging in engineering by providing a nonthreatening narrative with which to interpret instances of adversity. The affirmation-training intervention aimed to help students manage stress that can arise from social marginalization by incorporating diverse aspects of their self-identity in their daily academic lives. As expected, gender differences and intervention effects were concentrated in male-dominated majors (<20% women). In these majors, compared with control conditions, both interventions raised women's school-reported engineering grade-point-average (GPA) over the full academic year, eliminating gender differences. Both also led women to view daily adversities as more manageable and improved women's academic attitudes. However, the 2 interventions had divergent effects on women's social experiences. The social-belonging intervention helped women integrate into engineering, for instance, increasing friendships with male engineers. Affirmation-training helped women develop external resources, deepening their identification with their gender group. The results highlight how social marginalization contributes to gender inequality in quantitative fields and 2 potential remedies.
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Self-affirmation processes are being activated by information that threatens the perceived adequacy or integrity of the self and as running their course until this perception is restored through explanation, rationalization, and/or action. The purpose of these constant explanations (and rationalizations) is to maintain a phenomenal experience of the self-self-conceptions and images as adaptively and morally adequate—that is, as competent, good, coherent, unitary, stable, capable of free choice, capable of controlling important outcomes, and so on. The research reported in this chapter focuses on the way people cope with the implications of threat to their self-regard rather than on the way they cope with the threat itself. This chapter analyzes the way coping processes restore self-regard rather than the way they address the provoking threat itself.