Whether they’ve been working from home, coming into a workplace in difficult circumstances or dealing with the uncertainty of furlough, much of the British workforce is in a fragile state right now.
A study from CV Library earlier this year found that 42% of UK workers were on the brink of burnout, with 68% citing work as the main factor.
Burnout, which the World Health Organisation defines as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ and ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,’ is likely to be an enduring legacy of Covid-19 and our response to it.
‘The mental burden of this new experience and working through a pandemic has left employees feeling overwhelmed, fatigued and burnt out,’ says Claire Elmes, emotional wellbeing consultant at Inspire.
She says that, as companies return to some form of ‘normal’ over the next few months, whether they are embedding a new form of hybrid working, or returning to the office completely, tackling the emotional and mental state of employees will be vital.
‘Without adequate support and systems in place, the mental health crisis among employees will only increase,’ she explains.
So how can employers spot burnout, and what can they do about it? We asked the experts to share their tips.
What burnout looks like
Burnout feels like a term that we should understand intuitively, but it isn’t quite that simple.
Karen Jackson, managing director at law firm Didlaw, says the word ‘burnout’ has ‘entered common parlance’ and generally means ‘being exhausted to the point of collapse, mental or physical or both’.
Anji McGrandles, who runs workplace wellbeing consultants The Mind Tribe, says that burnout symptoms include exhaustion and insomnia, strained relationships, procrastination, and physical symptoms like headaches, shortness of breath and dizziness.
‘The day-to-day feels like a struggle and you have lost your sense of excitement,’ she says.
Anji adds that burnout is harder to spot at present due to hybrid working patterns, but says there are still warning signs.
‘Look for things such as showing up late or not at all to meetings, missing deadlines or other work commitments,’ she advises. ‘People who are normally social might be more withdrawn and less inclined to get involved in optional work or get-togethers.’
Why burnout matters
Claire says that burnt-out teams end up in ‘survival mode’, with productivity dropping and sickness increasing.
‘Teams will feel fragmented and disconnected,’ she warns.
Karen adds that burnout can even lead to long-term disability, as well as prolonged periods of sickness.
‘I have certainly seen cases of such severe burnout that the person will never recover: one client had six months of total amnesia before regaining some senses but remained afflicted by depression for a number of years after,’ she says.
And employers can end up being legally liable, she adds.
‘An employer who returns an employee to work after a period of stress-related absence may have an issue with a personal injury claim for work-related stress if the stress leave is related to work issues and if the employer has not done anything to address the problems.
‘The worst thing an employer can do is ignore health issues in the workplace.
‘It can prove to be very costly in terms of compensation and reputational damage.’
Companies that stepped up are seeing the benefit
While employers need to be alert to staff burnout, it is equally important for them to be proactive in providing help, even if that requires a change in the company’s culture and practices.
Karen Jackson, managing director at law firm Didlaw, says the signs that an employee may be struggling are not difficult to spot.
‘A usually reliable employee is late delivering a deadline, is late for work, is often in tears or can be short-tempered,’ she says.
‘If your organisation has an occupational health department you should encourage any staff you are concerned about to have an assessment. Your employment contracts should contain a provision that gives you the right to ask employees to see a company doctor.’
Karen says that when suggesting staff make a medical appointment you must be clear that while the doctor will advise the company on the employee’s ability and fitness to work, they are not permitted to share any confidential information about the employee without the employee’s consent.
Anji McGrandles, who runs workplace wellbeing consultants The Mind Tribe, adds that companies may need to take a long, hard look at their culture during this transition period back to office working.
‘Companies that foster an open-door policy and encourage staff to openly talk to their manager about burnout tend to prevent it or address it quickly should it be an issue,’ she says.
‘Encourage employees to switch off outside core hours. Employers and managers should lead by example and try to avoid contacting staff outside of core hours as this sets a precedent.’
A structured workplace wellbeing programme, with practical tools and strategies, will also help, she says. There’s evidence that having this in place will help you to recruit new talent, too.
A recent survey for recruitment agency Search Consultancy found that 93% of prospective employees listed wellbeing support as the most in-demand benefit available, above pensions and the right to work flexibly.
‘Historically, candidates have often prioritised pay and other commercial benefits when it comes to job hunting.
‘However, we are now seeing an increase in people putting company culture and wellbeing support first,’ says Dominic Starkey, marketing director at Search Consultancy.
He adds that wellbeing support can take many forms, from regular check-ins from management to mental health days or mental health awareness courses.
‘The businesses that genuinely stepped up to ensure the wellbeing of their staff are now seeing the benefit when it comes to staff retention and engagement with current vacancies,’ he adds.
Engaging with burnout now, as employees return to work, could stop you storing up problems later, especially since, as Anji says, the underlying issues leading to a burnout epidemic could persist for a while.
‘Even with the success of mass vaccinations and the optimism that things are returning to some kind of normal, expect burnout levels to remain high for some time,’ she says.
‘Planning ahead and allowing for a period of “transition” will help everybody readjust.’
‘We do a happiness check’
Gabriele Musella is the founder of automated cryptocurrency trading business CoinRule. He says that, despite the hope of getting back to normal that has appeared in recent weeks, he has noticed ‘growing anxiety amongst employees’.
‘Although we run a largely remote team with the option of coming into the office whenever necessary, we have not been immune from increased employee burnout,’ he says. ‘We’ve seen this in our employees through an increased lack of focus, drop in productivity and a bit of apathy towards work.’
The company does a routine ‘happiness check’ for everyone, which Gabriele describes as ‘an informal conversation to gauge the happiness and stress level in employees’.
‘From this, we are able to flag concerns from employees, especially those who are not vocal enough about their struggles,’ he explains.
‘When we become aware of burnout, we ensure to look for the root cause and address it. We offer sufficient time off for such employees to rest and take care of their mental health. We also provide as many resources as we can that can be of help to them.
‘Lastly, one very important thing we are doing is taking a step back to look at our company culture and try to find out if there are any things that facilitate burnout or increased stress among employees.’
‘Communication is key’
Marissa Jennings, managing partner at advertising agency Who Wot Why, says her company has taken a practical stance on burnout during the pandemic.
‘We have recognised the importance of physical and mental health by offering all staff comprehensive health insurance. We have also offered death in service and critical illness cover.
‘As communication is key to helping hard-working staff feel connected and supported, we started a buddy system so that staff could regularly chat to a colleague for emotional and social support.
‘Advertising is not a nine-to-five job — it is highly pressurised, intense and stressful.
‘Today, agencies are taking the mental wellbeing of staff much more seriously.
‘It is important to make the difficulties that everyone experiences at some time seem normal. Make it easy for people to flag when someone needs additional support.’
Tips and advice for businesses
If you are worried that your staff are burnt out, there are steps you can take. Psychotherapist and consultant Rebecca Smith from The Peachy Mind works with companies to improve employee wellbeing. Here are her top tips…
‘Not everyone who has experienced burnout will need the same support or adjustments to be made,’ Rebecca says.
‘Authentically listen to what your employee has experienced and what they believe would help them in their return to work. Often, we can listen with business and commercial needs at the forefront of our mind and miss vital information. ‘As well as the practical benefits, authentically listening builds connection and helps employees to feel valued, both of which will positively contribute towards their emotional reserves and reduce the risk of future burnout.’
Do a risk assessment
Rebecca says that the next most important thing to do is a ‘psychosocial risk assessment’, looking at how the environment that the employee finds themself in is affecting their mental health.
‘Maybe a change in working hours or a redistribution of responsibilities could help,’ she says. ‘A robust, written risk assessment can protect both employer and employee and provide a framework for ensuring organisations are psychologically healthy and safe places to be.’
Change your focus
Focusing on solutions and strengths will help you to give your employees what they need, Rebecca says, and that focus can help everyone, not just those you know are struggling.
‘Insisting on lunchbreaks, email cut-off times and flexible working arrangements can all help employees to manage their stresses effectively.
‘With regards to individual employees, what strengths have they developed over the last year and what are they nervous about? How as an organisation can you nurture and develop those strengths and facilitate a reintegration that minimises unnecessary stresses whilst they are rebuilding their reserves?’ Rebecca says.
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