By Simon Brittz, Counselling Psychologist at Roodlane Medical, part of HCA Healthcare UK
Over the past few months, employees have adapted to a new hybrid workplace, yet this model also comes with its pitfalls – one of which, is that burnout is rapidly on the rise.
Since 2015, online searches for the phrase ‘occupational burnout’ have risen by more than 2,500%, 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 UK employees feel they have reached a psychological breaking point. Moreover, only 1 in 6 feel their mental health needs are being supported at work.
With Covid cases reaching record levels this month as the Omicron variant surges, anxiety levels amongst employees are set to soar again. Now, as the ‘great resignation’ continues and UK job vacancies climb, businesses who continue to overlook employee burnout will only do so at their own risk.
So, how can employers address the silent epidemic gripping the nation?
Burnout is an occupational phenomenon which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines 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 now included in the 2022 WHO ICD 11 classification criteria. These inclusions emphasize the severity of this illness on our mental health.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between high stress levels and “par for the course” of a certain profession, versus when an employee is considered ‘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 three key areas of functioning – physical, emotional and cognitive.
Signs that an employer can look out for are:
- Physical burnout – employees may appear tired, 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
- Emotional burnout – individuals may be irritable, lack enthusiasm or motivation, display mood swings or describe feeling overwhelmed, anxious and down
- 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 hybrid workplace
If you observe any of the potential signs of burnout in a colleague or employee, it is important you speak to them rather than brushing the issue under the carpet and hoping it will go away.
Make sure you approach the conversation in a compassionate way and phrase your concern in a non-accusatory tone. By asking questions in a sensitive manner and without putting any extra pressure on your employees, the hope is that they will feel comfortable opening up and sharing how they are feeling. You can then work together to create a plan of action to help support them through this difficult time.
With most workplaces open in some capacity, it’s more important than ever for employers to step up their support by providing flexible work schedules and hybrid options. That way employees can work out which pattern they are most comfortable with, 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 they can deal with juggling personal commitments or set aside more time for their mental wellbeing.
Employers should also focus on demonstrating the right behaviour. If a business has embraced a flexible or hybrid working pattern, then managers can demonstrate their support for this option by adopting it themselves. Employees who see this behaviour in their managers are more likely to fully utilize the options available to them without feeling guilty or hesitant, which will be better for their mental wellbeing and preventing burnout in the future.
Ultimately, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to tackling burnout in the workplace as it will manifest differently in 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.
After battling the Covid-19 pandemic for nearly two years, what’s becoming clear is we can never predict what’s around the corner. However, the emergence of new variants suggests that hybrid working models are likely to become the new ‘normal’. Therefore, businesses need to wake up to the severity of the burnout ‘epidemic’ and take on a new attitude towards employee care – only then will they avoid sleepwalking into a mental health crisis.