Employee-employer communication failure can cause burnout

Employee-employer communication failure can cause burnout

VUB psychologist investigates effect of breaching employees psychological contract

As an employee, you essentially do your best. But implicitly you expect something in return – appreciation, a certain autonomy or the potential to grow. This is called the psychological contract. When employees feel their employer is not fulfilling these tacit obligations, they experience it as a breach of their psychological contract (PCB). Research by Vrije Universiteit Brussel doctoral student Safâa Achnak shows that clear communication between employee and employer about mutual expectations is essential to combat depression and burnout. Achnak: “Early intervention is crucial. It’s essential to make it clear what the perceived mutual obligations are or to give feedback early if unspoken obligations are not met. As an employer you can monitor this; as an employee you can learn to communicate about it. That way, you protect both the well-being of the employee and the proper functioning of the organisation.

The secret motivation killer at work

Achnak, of VUB’s Department of Psychology & Educational Sciences, under the supervision of Prof Dr Tim Vantilborgh (VUB), investigated how psychological and physical stress reactions to PCB develop over time and what role employer and employee play in this dynamic relationship. She conducted two psychological experiments and three surveys in which Belgian and American employees in various sectors were questioned daily or monthly about their experiences of PCB and stress.

Her results show that PCBs can be associated with an increased heart rate There is also a link between such breaches and increased negative emotions such as anger and disappointment. These negative emotions in turn provoke psychological stress reactions, both in the short- and long-term, which can lead to physical complaints such as increased blood pressure, depression and burnout.

Furthermore, Achnak found that the longer people have to wait for a response from their employer to an obligation that was not fulfilled, the more feelings of anxiety and depression they experience.

She also examined how employees deal with PCB and found that employees use a combination of coping strategies. There are three broad strategies: avoidance-focused, problem-focused and emotion-focused. Avoidance-oriented strategies focus on mental and/or physical distancing by, for example, showing less commitment, doing poorer quality work or reporting in sick. With problem-focused coping, the employee actively addresses the cause of the problem by, for example, asking the supervisor to rectify the breach. Emotion-focused coping is more about learning to deal with the negative emotions associated with the breach by, for example, seeking emotional support from colleagues or friends, without addressing the problem itself.

Train employers to adress PCB, train employees how to deal with stress

Achnak’s research emphasises the importance of regularly discussing mutual obligations and making these clear to avoid stress in the employee and prevent burnout and depression as a result of PCBs.

Employers therefore benefit from knowledge of work stressors and information and training on how best to tackle them. Employees can learn to clearly communicate their expectations and deal with stressful situations. Achnak: “Employees who have experienced PCB and are suffering from long-term stress as a result, such as burnout or depression, can be helped. A combination of approach-oriented and avoidance-oriented coping strategies puts them in a better position to cope with stress in the aftermath of PCB.”


Safâa Achnak


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