Burnt out workers more likely to make risky decisions

A study has found workers under extreme stress are less likely to predict serious consequences

indecision dice

Burnt out workers are more likely to make risky and irrational decisions, a University of Surrey study has found.

The 262 participants in the research completed an online questionnaire, as well as a series of tests in which they were asked to make decisions in a number of workplace scenarios and rate the seriousness of their consequences.

Decision-making impaired

In one scenario the participants, who came from a range of different professional backgrounds,  were asked what they would do if they noticed a colleague taking home confidential information without permission.

The research showed the participants whose questionnaire responses indicated signs of burnout were more likely to take the high-risk course of action, and less likely to identify the consequences of these actions as serious.


Protecting the frontline against burnout: Creating cultures to promote resilience and wellbeing for social care and health professionals– 10th March 2015
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The study’s findings follow  Community Care research where 80% of 2037 social workers  said  stress was affecting their ability to do their job properly.

Emotional resources depleted

Lead author on the study, Evie Michailidis told Community Care: “As emotional resources are depleted, employees feel that they are no longer able to give their best, and they do not have enough energy to devote to their job.

“This prompts people to distance themselves emotionally and cognitively from their work, as an attempt to cope with the work pressure.

This, Michailidis said, led to de-personalisation – the process by which stressed-out workers detach, developing feelings of indifference towards their work, co-workers and service users.

“As burnt out employees do not care if the decision they take goes wrong, they reach risky decisions quickly without comprehensively analysing and evaluating alternatives,” she said.

Measuring burnout

Participants in the study were tested for signs of burnout using the academically accepted measurement, the Maslach Burnout Inventory, for which they were asked to rate how far they felt statements such as “I feel tired when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job” applied to them.

Michailidis cautioned all employees to be aware of the signs of burnout to prevent it creeping up on them, and employers to provide suitable support and working environments for employees responsible for decision-making tasks, especially when risk is involved.

“Risky decision-making may lead to detrimental and fatal consequences, especially for those in highly stressful occupations such as social workers who deal with an individual’s physical and mental well-being and health on a daily basis,” she added.

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