Research has shown that many remote workers are clocking in more hours and facing a bigger workload then before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Remote workers have developed habits of taking shorter lunch breaks and working through sickness. Furthermore, the sheer length of the pandemic and the delays to unlocking the country, are stressors that have worn employees down. In short, the boundaries between home and work have become increasingly blurred and this is where burnout is the source of future ill-health and absence from working issues.
Burnout is widely recognised as a state of mental and physical exhaustion that can sap the joy out of a career, friendships and family interactions. And for employers that are moving to a hybrid working model, now is not the time to let your guard down when it comes to mental health. You should be aware of the warning signs of burnout, its causes and some key preventative measures.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when an individual feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet the demands of work.
Burnout isn’t technically a medical diagnosis in itself, but instead it refers to a collection of symptoms:
- Feeling completely exhausted;
- Having little motivation for your job or becoming cynical – employees can become alienated from work-related activities as a result;
- Feeling irritable – this can lead to workplace conflicts between employees or employees can become sensitive to feedback;
- Feeling anxious – remember these anxieties can be exacerbated by a return to the office;
- Finding it difficult to concentrate – this can affect the quality and coherency of the work;
- Having poor sleep habits – this can be linked to working longer hours or working outside the conventional 9-5 hours;
- A drop in performance and an inability to meet deadlines or make decisions – employees can struggle with the more mundane tasks but also lose their creative spark;
- Unexplained headaches and other physical symptoms, including stomach or bowel problems, fatigue, excessive stress, insomnia, alcohol or substance misuse and high blood pressure.
Employee burnout does not happen overnight. It comes about through a series of trigger events or patterns that occur over time and can cause a worker to feel debilitated. Line managers should be trained to spot these warning signs and be wary of the fact that employees may be reluctant or even unwilling to discuss their mental health.
Causes of burnout
There is no one single cause of burnout, but instead it is related to a variety of factors:
- Unreasonable time pressure – this can affect the quality of the work and exacerbate feelings of stress and burnout;
- Lack of communication and support from a manager – managers can offer a psychological buffer against stress, or alternatively increase it by failing to acknowledge the warning signs of burnout;
- Lack of role clarity or job expectations – it is important that employees understand what is required of them and the authority they have, so they are able to focus on completing the right task;
- Unrealistic workload – line managers should communicate between each other before assigning tasks to employees, so as to avoid the possibility of duplicating tasks in small time periods;
- Unfair treatment – this can include things such as favouritism, bullying and harassment, unfair compensation and other forms of mistreatment;
- Work-life imbalance and a neglect of family and friends – this can be deliberate, where employees are increasingly tempted to work past their contracted hours particularly when working from home, or forced, where the workload becomes so extensive.
From an employer’s perspective, it is important that you take a more holistic approach and try to implement preventative measures.
- Developing a mental health friendly culture – you should provide leadership and encourage employees to openly discuss issues they are encountering at work. You can also revisit workplace policies to create more flexibility for employees, in terms of scheduling and setting workplace boundaries;
- Ensuring employees are taken care of – it is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees. You should ensure you have the right people, programs and resources in place to deal with welfare related issues;
- Promoting a work-life balance – Encourage employees to take holidays and to utilise their lunch breaks. Incorporate team building days and social events into the working calendar.
It is important that employers spot the warning signs of burnout and take practical steps to insist that employees relax and unwind by:
- Requiring staff to take their annual leave – travel remains difficult but it is still important to take time off, even if workers are just at home or going on a staycation;
- Encouraging them to get enough sleep – if they are working from home, encouraging them to turn off their computer and do something relaxing before bed such as reading or taking a bath;
- Making sure that they try to finish work on time – avoid the temptation of working way beyond their contracted hours, particularly late into the evenings;
- Communicating with managers – make your managers aware of the need to recognise issues or stresses as they arise, so they are prepared and able to offer support;
- Scheduling in time for non-work related activities – this can include social events, or starting up hobby or exercise clubs.
Burn out is real problem in all sectors. It presents a huge risk for organisations. But it can be combatted.