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What is burnout, and how can you prevent it?

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​Unless you’ve been staying far away from the internet lately (and to be honest, some days we really couldn’t blame you if you had) then you will most likely have read – or at least scrolled past – an article with the term ‘burnout’ in the title.

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its first birthday, cases of burnout are on the rise and more and more people are becoming aware of how serious a problem it can be – not just for the person suffering, but also for the company they work for. Whilst burnout is mostly seen as a mental health issue, few people realise just how physically debilitating or just how far-reaching the effects can be.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as ‘a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,’ and in 2019 WHO declared it an ‘occupational syndrome’ in its International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual. The definition of burnout contains three main symptoms:

  • Feeling exhausted with little to no energy

  • Feeling negative towards your career, or that there is a ‘mental distance’

  • Productivity at work is reduced

These symptoms, however, do not cover the full scope of what is reported by burnout sufferers. Left untreated, burnout can begin to affect you physically – regular headaches, having a weaker immune system, and being more susceptible to illnesses and muscle pain are just a few of these.

Leaving burnout untreated can also lead to a dependence on food, alcohol, or drugs. As burnout can leave someone feeling ‘empty’, with decreased satisfaction in things they would usually enjoy, some of these people seek solace in substances… leading to much worse problems down the road.

So, burnout is just stress then?

Yes and no. Whilst burnout can be caused by periods of unmanaged stress, the resulting syndromes differ. Where stress can leave you with too many feelings and the need for more control, burnout often leaves you feeling empty with little interest or motivation to work.

If your work stress isn’t managed or tackled head on, there’s a high chance that you could end up ‘burning out’. ‘Normal’ workplace stress often shows that you still care about your job, but burnout means that you all but stop caring – which can have disastrous consequences.

Why have cases of burnout risen during the pandemic?

At the start of the first UK lockdown, many people assumed that we would be working from home for a couple of weeks, only to then be heading back to the office. This was not the case. Nine months in, many workers are still working at unsuitable workstations in cramped housing, trying to juggle their home and work lives from the same space, all whilst dealing with a worldwide pandemic.

The boundaries between our work and home lives – a commute, colleagues to talk to during the workday and family at home, set start and finish times – have all but faded away. Our in-person colleagues are now the people we live with and we only see our actual colleagues on a screen. We’re starting work earlier and finishing later, and switching off at the end of the day can be near-impossible, especially if you have to relax in the same room that you work in.

On top of all this… we are in the midst of a global pandemic! This is one of the longest-lasting crisis situations affecting the whole world at once since WWII. Our fight or flight instincts have never had to work this hard over such a prolonged period of time, and our culture of 24 hour news and social media has meant we are being constantly assaulted from all sides by bad news. Add to this the gloomy economic outlook and the fear of unemployment, and it’s no wonder the UK’s workforce is on the brink.

How do we spot burnout?

It’s important to remember that every single person is different. There are no ‘set’ rules as to what symptoms can be a sign of burnout, but there are a few that are quite common and can be good indicators of how your employees are coping:

  • Decreased quality of work and productivity

  • Increased complaining and cynicism

  • A usually engaged employee appears disengaged

  • A shorter temper or problems controlling emotions at work

  • Lack of energy and ability to concentrate

If your employee is not their usual self, it is a good idea to communicate with them. Not every person suffering with burnout will have the above symptoms, some may only have one or two, and some may have none, but a change in attitude and behaviours is usually always a sign that something is wrong.

Why is it important to look out for signs of burnout in employees?

All employers have a duty of care to their employees and are responsible for their health and wellbeing whilst at work – and this includes their mental health. By ignoring the signs, or resorting to disciplinary action before communication, you could be putting your business at risk from legal repercussions.

It’s also a well-known adage that happy staff equates to happy clients, which of course means that unhappy staff is likely to lead to unhappy clients. Ignoring signs of burnout could also cause productivity within your company to plummet, staff engagement to stagnate, and poor staff retention rates.

Not only that, but it’s also nice to be a decent human being who cares about the wellbeing of their employees! Burnout may be a mental health problem, but it can have real, physical symptoms such as a weaker immune system and causing stomach upsets – all which will increase the amount of sick time taken by employees.

I think I might be suffering burnout – how do I get help?

Firstly, congratulate yourself on realising that you may need help. You’ve taken the first, big step just by admitting that there may be a problem.

Then, communicate. Ask your manager for some time to sit down – either on the phone or via a Zoom/Teams call, whichever you feel the most comfortable with – and let them know that you are struggling, and you are worried that you may be suffering from burnout. Have an honest talk with your manager about what you are struggling with, and work with them to help create solutions.

This could be some time off to rest, a reduced workload for a while, or even something completely different – just like the symptoms of burnout, the solutions also differ from person to person.

Make sure that you are confiding in someone outside of work, too. Having someone you trust to act as a sounding board and who will lend you a sympathetic ear makes a huge difference.

If you are still worried that you are suffering then do not hesitate to contact your GP, who can provide access to support networks and mental health professionals.

I think one of my employees is showing symptoms of burnout – what should I do?

Communicate with them – don’t assume that someone is just ‘being grumpy’ or ‘is a bit down’. Take a quiet few minutes to check in on them, ask them – sincerely - if they are okay, and encourage them to come and talk to you if they have any concerns. By opening up the dialogue and reassuring them that they can trust you, they may feel that they can open up about their worries.

By listening to your employees and working with them to find solutions, you are showing that you care for them as more than just how much work they do and will encourage a more open and healthier workplace for all of your employees.

If possible, it’s also a good idea to offer employee benefits that can help counter-act burnout, such as an Employee Assistance Programme, Mental Health days, or perks that encourage your employees to have hobbies outside of work (e.g. Gym memberships). Google CEO Sundar Pichai has introduced 'Meeting Free Weeks' for his employees, meaning that they can focus on their core tasks without their schedule being packed with meetings, as 'too many Zoom meetings' has become one of the largest complaints about our new way of working.

And lastly – don’t react in a ‘knee-jerk’ way. The current business climate is scary, and some managers may see underperforming employees as a danger to their business as opposed to somebody struggling to cope. Don’t instantly jump to disciplinary procedures, instead open up a conversation to get to the bottom of the root cause.


We explored burnout and the effects remote work is having on our lives in our latest whitepaper report, The Future of Work Part II. You can download your free copy here.

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