occupational burnout and what employers can do about it

In today’s hectic world there is immense social pressure to always be ‘busy’. The value placed on achievement and productivity forces us to constantly be achieving things. In contrast, resting, taking time off, day-dreaming or relaxing are often seen as lazy pursuits, not to be openly discussed or encouraged.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that BURNOUT is on the rise. It is a growing problem for the modern workplace, having an impact on organisational costs as well as employee health and wellbeing. A 2018 Gallup study found that 23% of employees felt burnt out at work very often or always and burned-out employees were 63% more likely to take a sick day.

But, what is Burnout?

Burnout was a term first used in the 1970’s by American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, which he defined as “the extinction of motivation and incentive”. However, earlier this year the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its reclassification for the 11th revision of the International Classification of Disease, upgrading burnout to an occupational syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The WHO also included three dimensions of burnout:

  • feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced professional productivity

It is hoped that this revised definition will help burnout to be taken more seriously and encourage employers to regard it as a legitimate and chronic workplace condition that needs tackling. Burnout is not the same as stress. Although stress can be one of the early warning signs that may lead to burnout, stress tends to be associated with ‘too much’, eg too much pressure or too many deadlines and demands. Whereas burnout is associated with ‘not enough’, eg not enough energy, or no hope and no motivation. When burnout takes hold, the ability to tackle obstacles disappears, life loses meaning and small tasks can feel huge.

Psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and panic disorders can affect a person’s ability to function at work, but burnout is a condition that stems directly from the work itself when demands of a job outweigh the rewards and recognition. Therefore, tackling burnout has to address the intricate relationship between an individual and their work.

What are the Symptoms?

Burnout is not a sudden condition, but one that builds-up over time. Symptoms associated with burnout are complex and varied:

Disillusionment; loss of meaning; mental and physical fatigue; exhaustion; moodiness; impatience; short temper; loss of motivation; withdrawing from responsibilities; procrastinating; reduced interest in commitments; foggy thinking; trouble concentrating; inability to meet deadlines; lowered immunity to illness; emotional detachment; feeling efforts are unappreciated; irritability and withdrawal from colleagues, social situations and family members; hopelessness; helplessness; depressed outlook; inefficiency; frequent headaches and muscle pains; changes in appetite and sleep patterns; absenteeism

It also appears that some personality traits and those in certain professions can be more prone to burnout, such as people with ambitious, conscientious, and perfectionist tendencies and jobs that are intense and people-oriented requiring selflessness and altruism. Similarly, a poor fit between someone’s personality and their workplace culture or chosen profession can cause additional tension and frustrations. These complexities between mindset, work environment and career choice can all impact and contribute to the onset of burnout.

The Role of Employers

Recovery time from burnout can mean months off work and may be associated with additional longer term mental and physical health problems. Employers cannot afford to ignore the symptoms of burnout and need to recognise that their working environment and management culture can have a profound effect on how people cope with work demands and how they feel about their jobs.

There are lots of low and medium cost interventions that organisations can adopt to provide more supportive and healthier workplaces:

  • Invest in practical people management skills training
  • Set clear work objectives and monitor workloads
  • Give consistent performance feedback
  • Invite feedback from staff about problems and areas for improvement
  • Check holiday entitlements are booked and taken
  • Promote wellbeing initiatives including exercise, good nutrition and financial education
  • Consider providing mental health first aider training
  • Hire temporary staff to alleviate work pressures at peak times
  • Provide relevant training and development, including team-based and communications training
  • Offer flexible working options to employees
  • Clarify guidelines on out-of-work phone and email contact
  • Compensate fairly and competitively
  • Show appreciation and recognition
  • Consider offering suitable employee assistance programmes aimed at smaller businesses
  • Involve staff in making changes to the work environment
  • Support community-based projects

These measures will go a long way to reduce the likelihood of burnout and long absences, whilst improving employee engagement and productivity levels.

So what are you waiting for, which ones are you going to implement?

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