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Date posted: 26th February 2021

26th February 2021

Guest Blog: Psychological Availability: Its Relationship with Engagement and Burnout

Guest Blog: Psychological Availability: Its Relationship with Engagement and Burnout

The following blog is a guest post by Russell Robinson. Founder of Amplified Research, Civil Servant and Researcher Focusing on Employee Engagement, and Voice/Silence.


On the commute into the office this morning, I was listening to a podcast by one of the top human capital consulting firms addressing burnout.  Last week, I read a research article from another human capital firm addressing “The Future of Work” and mitigating and preventing employee burnout will be a critical need for organizations to address.  As leaders reflect on the impacts COVID, social justice and hyper-politics had on their workforce, burnout and wellness tend to be recurring themes.

What struck me about the podcast and article was the experts directly linked burnout to psychological safety.  I understand this.  In 2016, Charles Duhigg’s NY Times Magazine article on Google introduced psychological safety to the mainstream.  For his article, Duhigg utilized Amy Edmondson’s 1999 article “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” Duhigg’s incorporation of psychological safety and it became a driver of culture, employee engagement, and employee experience.  The belief is that creating a culture where employees feel authentic and inclusive will improve their engagement state.  Makes perfect sense to me.

However, psychological safety is only one part of the three-headed monster that drives employee engagement.  William Kahn identifies psychological meaningfulness and psychological availability as the other two drivers of employee engagement.  He defines psychological availability as the employee having the physical, emotional, or psychological resources to personally engage, given the distractions he/she experiences as a member of social systems.  Kahn suggested that an employee’s outside activity and work/life balance may impact his/her psychological availability.  And based on these definitions, psychological availability has a stronger link to employee engagement than psychological safety.

Right after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, I felt this huge sense of burnout regarding the constant deaths of unarmed black people at the arms of law enforcement.  My black male friends expressed this same sense of burnout, or exhaustion, and its impact on our wellness.  Some of us believed we worked in psychologically safe cultures, but this feeling of burnout made us not want to be fully engaged at work.   So, workforce solutions to make us more psychologically safe would not have been as effective as focusing on why we felt that we could not be fully available at work.

Sidebar, none of the recent podcasts or articles capture the social justice impact of burnout and wellness on the workforce.  Burnout and wellness were solely seen through the prism of COVID.  Which makes me wonder if inclusion is really inclusive? But that is a separate conversation.

Prior to COVID, employees and leaders shared experiences of not having the bandwidth or capacity to maintain a proper work/life balance.  COVID has exacerbated this challenge by removing work/home barriers and adding challenges, such as having to home school children and caring for family members in the virus’s vulnerable populations.  These scenarios led to more heightened feelings of burnout and exhaustion.

Another sidebar, during the past year domestic and child abuse have been on the rise, which has not made it to the podcasts and articles.  Again, topic for another conversation.

An employee’s experience regarding his/her psychological availability provides critical insight for organizations (and consultants) to further foster solutions leading a more engaged workforce.  The truth is burnout and wellness have been hiding in plain sight for a while now.  Understanding why employees feel available, or unavailable, can help organizations develop the right solutions.

My perspective is there are solutions that employees and leaders can do to ensure that psychological availability is strong within an organization.  For example, employees and leaders can develop rituals to maintain physical wellness such as going for walks or quick workouts.  For spiritual wellness, finding time to meditate or study a favorite religious reading can help to maintain wellness.   A critical aspect can be creating physical or time barriers between work and home can help people shut down and not think of work as a 24-hour cycle.  A leader can tell his organization or work group there is a certain time period where emails and virtual meetings are discouraged.  The key to developing the right solutions is having the right of conversation, in the right context, with employees to hear and understand their burnout experiences.