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Employee burnout: Addressing the silent epidemic gripping the nation

Written by Simon Brittz on Friday, 07 January 2022. Posted in Leadership, HR, People

Over the past few months, we have started to see life return to normal with office workers going back to their desks and embracing the commute again.

Employee burnout: Addressing the silent epidemic gripping the nation

Over the past few months, we have started to see life return to normal with office workers going back to their desks and embracing the commute again. However, while returning to our old routines is largely regarded as positive, adjusting to the new hybrid working model comes with its pitfalls – one of which, is that burnout is rapidly on the rise.

Global online searches for the term ‘occupational burnout’ have increased by more than 2,500% since 2015, with the pandemic only exacerbating this increase. In fact, according to a recent study, over 70 percent of people have experienced burnout in the last 12 months and a quarter of U.K. employees feel they have reached a psychological breaking point. On top of this, only 1 in 6 feel their mental health needs are being supported at work. 

Not only is returning to the workplace physically and emotionally exhausting, with Covid cases topping 50,000 for the first time in 3-months, anxiety levels are set to soar again. Now, as the ‘great resignation’ continues and UK job vacancies soar, employers who continue to overlook employee burnout will only do so at their own risk. 

So, how can businesses address the silent epidemic gripping the nation?

Identifying burnout

Burnout is an occupational phenomenon and is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. In fact, burnout has recently been officially classified as a mental illness and its diagnosis is also included in the 2022 WHO ICD 11 classification criteria. These updated inclusions further highlight the severity of this illness on our mental health.

At times it can be difficult to differentiate between what is considered high stress levels and “par for the course” of a particular profession, versus when an employee is deemed ‘burnt out’. Burnout starts as anxiety related to work demands but increases to a point where the anxiety causes clinically significant impairment in a person’s functioning and wellbeing. Burnout will manifest in 3 important areas of functioning - physical, emotional and cognitive. 

Some key signs that an employer can look out for:

  • Signs of physical burnout – employees may appear tried, fatigued or lethargic, there could be a change in their eating patterns or energy levels and an increase in illnesses due to a compromised immune system
  • Signs of emotional burnout – individuals may be irritable, lack enthusiasm or motivation, display mood swings or describe feeling overwhelmed, anxious and down 
  • Signs of cognitive burnout – employees may appear easily distracted, exhibit brain fog, short term memory loss and reduce professional efficacy, or struggle to concentrate 

Addressing burnout in the workplace

If you notice any of the potential signs of burnout in a colleague or employee, it is important you speak to them rather than simply brushing the issue under the carpet and hoping it will correct itself with time. 

To start, approach the conversation in a compassionate and empathetic way and make sure you phrase your concern in a non-accusatory tone. The hope is that by asking questions in a sensitive manner and without putting any additional pressure on your employees, they will feel comfortable enough to open up to you and share how they are feeling. From there, you can then work to put a plan of action in place to help support them through this challenging period. 

Unfortunately, many now assume that with lockdown restrictions lifted and social distancing measures relaxed, the pressure on individuals’ mental health has also abated. However, if anything, it is now more important than ever that employers step up their support in the return-to-office transition. 

Employees are going through another significant shift, so rather than enforcing a blanket return to the office, try to provide flexible work schedules and hybrid options. That way employees can work out what pattern suits them best, without an unnecessary weight of expectation on them. Moreover, be mindful about the workload of your employees and consider providing additional time off so that individuals can deal with juggling personal commitments or take more time for their mental wellbeing.

Crucially, employers should focus on demonstrating the right behaviour. For example, if a business has adopted a flexible or hybrid working pattern, then managers can demonstrate that they support their staff pursuing this option by embracing it themselves. Employees who see this behaviour in their managers are more likely to fully embrace the options available to them without feeling guilty or hesitant, which will be better for their mental wellbeing and preventing burnout in the long run.

Ultimately, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to tackling burnout in the workplace as it will manifest differently in each and every employee. However, developing open communication channels and providing the opportunity for employees to talk about any challenges or pressures they are experiencing is essential. 

Adjusting to the new hybrid working model is going to be an ongoing challenge, both for employees and employers. However, unless businesses wake up to the severity of the ‘burnout’ epidemic and embrace a new attitude towards employee care, then they risk sleepwalking into a mental health crisis.

About the Author

Simon Brittz

Simon Brittz

Simon Brittz, Counselling Psychologist at Roodlane Medical, part of HCA Healthcare UK

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