A multi-country study has found evidence that promoting a shared sense of identity among employees fosters higher team identification and, in turn, minimizes burnout. The findings, which came from two large global data sets, were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

No matter your job description, work-related stress can lead to burnout — a state of emotional exhaustion, detachment, and reduced self-efficacy. Study authors Rolf van Dick and his colleagues wanted to explore whether workplace leaders might be able to protect their employees from burnout through effective leadership.

“I am personally very much concerned about employee health — whether in my own team, our university or the organizations we are working with,” explained van Dick, a professor of social psychology at Goethe University. And leaders are the key to well-being at work — and every leader should think of performance and well-being as not mutually exclusive concepts but as two sides of the same coin which can go together!”

Specifically, they focused on identity leadership, a leadership style whereby a leader cultivates and nurtures a shared sense of identity among team members. By promoting team identification, identity leadership should increase employees’ well-being in numerous ways, and ultimately, lower the likelihood of burnout.

The researchers analyzed responses from two waves of the Global Identity Leadership Development (GILD) survey, distributed five years apart. Between 2016 and 2017, the survey was distributed among 5,290 workers in 20 countries. Between 2020 and 2021, the survey was distributed among 7,294 workers in 28 countries. The questionnaires included measures of team identification and burnout and asked respondents to rate the extent that their immediate supervisor exemplified identity leadership.

Across both surveys and in nearly all individual countries, identity leadership was positively associated with team identification. In other words, employees whose leaders were more involved in building a sense of shared identity in the workplace reported feeling more like a part of their team. Moreover, a mediation analysis revealed that, across the entire dataset, identity leadership was indirectly related to burnout through team identification. Specifically, employees with leaders who were higher in identity leadership felt stronger team identification and, in turn, were less likely to experience burnout.

The study authors next found longitudinal evidence for this effect. A subset of 111 participants from Germany who had completed the survey in 2020/21 completed a follow-up survey three months later. Comparing responses from these two time points revealed that identity leadership at the first assessment was positively associated with team identification three months later. Furthermore, greater identity leadership at the first survey predicted reduced burnout three months later through greater team identification.

“Many of us are leaders — even if you are responsible for only two or three other people at work or if you are a coach of a children’s soccer team or serve in a voluntary organization. And irrespectively of whether you are leading in a for- or not-for-profit organization or whether you are leading a large or very small group — the key for good leadership is the creation of a common identity shared by everyone in the group,” van Dick told PsyPost.

“Such a shared understanding of who we are, what we stand for, or what are our norms and standards is important for mutual support and collective self-efficacy. This helps coping with stress and leads to higher well-being and reduced burnout. And we show in our paper that this works globally — in 30 countries on all continents: Leaders who create shared identities lead employees who have reduced levels of burnout. In the US or Australia, in Europe but also in Asia, South Africa or elsewhere — it works!”

Given the unique time period of the study, some of the data was captured during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic (February 2020 to June 2020) while other data was captured during the later stages (September 2020 to May 2021). When the researchers compared survey responses from before and after the pandemic, they found that countries assessed during the pandemic scored higher in both team identification and burnout. “Interestingly, such evidence that employees are more highly identified with their teams but also somewhat more burnt-out aligns with the ‘well-being engagement paradox’ identified by Gallup in the wake of the pandemic,” van Dick and his colleagues say. They also note that it appears that identity leadership was not deterred by the COVID crisis but may have actually grown, possibly safeguarding employees’ well-being during this uncertain time.

However, “our research is largely cross-sectional and uses employees’ self-reports,” van Dick noted. “Whilst this is fine for reporting their own levels of burnout, it would be good to have team members’ assessments of their team identification and their leaders identity leadership activities.”

Overall, the study offers convincing evidence that nurturing a shared identity in the workplace is an effective leadership style that can protect employees from burnout — and that this effect is consistent across countries. The researchers suggest that future studies that either include additional time points or use experimental methods will help provide insight into causality.

“The truly remarkable aspect of this project is its large number of collaborators from all over the world who have worked together in this enterprise named Global Identity Leadership Development (GILD) project with now more than 15,000 respondents,” van Dick added.

Source: PsyPost
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