Burnout has become an issue that employers, especially those in the public sector, can’t afford to ignore.
Chronic stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem even more serious. According to a 2021 survey, 42% of public sector employees have felt burnt-out over the past year. Nearly a third are considering changing jobs, with 25% saying they’d like to leave the sector entirely. In the past two years, millions of employees across sectors have quit in the Great Resignation and 40% cited burnout as their top reason for leaving.
Signs of burnout include exhaustion, mental distance from one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. Burnout can also lead to high levels of absenteeism and turnover.
Are there feasible, low-cost strategies that public sector employers can apply to mitigate these effects? What role can behavioral science play? Our work with 911 dispatchers offers evidence on what works.
Social connection decreased burnout among frontline workers
In 2017, Elizabeth Linos, former Head of Research for BIT Americas, led our partnership with Krista Ruffini and others at The People Lab at UC Berkeley. We set out to identify and test an intervention to increase perceived social support and reduce burnout among 911 dispatchers across the US.
We found that an interactive email series decreased rates of burnout by 8 points (0.4 SD) and cut resignations by more than half four months after the intervention ended. These outcomes could save a mid-sized city at least $400,000 in personnel costs.
A behavioral science lens revealed the realities of 911 dispatchers
Before developing the intervention, we interviewed 911 dispatchers and supervisors to identify the root causes of burnout and high turnover in the field. In addition to being a stressful job (dispatchers answer about 2,400 calls a year, work long hours with low pay, face emotional exhaustion, and more), dispatchers can feel undervalued and isolated compared to other emergency service providers.
For example, firefighters and EMTs have strong professional communities. They’re also federally classified as first responders and receive corresponding resources. Dispatchers work alone, as high call volumes tie them to their desks. The federal government classifies them as clerical workers as well, which limits the benefits they receive and understates their important role in emergency response.
Designing and piloting the social support email series
Studies have found that people with stronger social supports also report lower levels of burnout. Building on this research, the team at BIT and UC Berkeley designed a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to see whether workplace-based interventions that bolster perceived social support among peers could reduce burnout and turnover among 911 dispatchers.
Our RCT took the form of a six-week email series. With the support of What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative, we collaborated with emergency call centers in nine mid-sized cities across the US.
Each week, a call center supervisor would send an email to dispatchers in their city who were assigned to the treatment group. Emails shared a story from a fellow dispatcher and asked recipients to reply with their own by responding to a prompt. Prompts ranged from advice they would give to a new recruit to recommendations for great mentors.
In the final week, recipients reflected on why they chose to be 911 dispatchers.
271 dispatchers received treatment emails, while the control group of 265 recipients were sent one message at the start of the series explaining that stories are being collected and to share theirs if they’d like to.
We measured rates of burnout three times through a survey using the Copenhagen Burnout Index—once before sending the email series to establish a baseline for comparison, once immediately after the series ended, and again four months later. Because building a sense of belonging takes time, we saw stronger effects in the medium-term.
On average, burnout fell by 8 points. These results are statistically significant, though they’re not without limitations. The survey was voluntary and fewer dispatchers in the control group completed it compared to the treatment group.
To determine whether the self-reported data translated into tangible outcomes, we also measured administrative data before and after the trial ended, focusing on the amount of resignations and leave taken. Resignations decreased by more than half.
The future of behavioral science and reducing burnout
Dispatchers face unique structural challenges that lead to burnout. A big reason why our RCT showed positive results was because it was customized to those realities.
Behaviorally-informed interventions alone won’t eradicate burnout. But as the public sector invests in structural solutions, behavioral insights can offer low-cost strategies to help reduce it in the interim.