How to identify burnout in your workforce

Employment & Skills | How To

Stress

Dr Nick Earley, Head of Psychology at Happence, explores the signs of workplace burnout and provides tips on shedding the stigma that surrounds it.

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Common causes of employee burnout can include working long hours, balancing multiple responsibilities, lacking control over the way tasks are carried out, or having to perform tasks that clash with the individual’s sense of self.

Conversations about burnout have increased since the onset of the pandemic, but it can still be difficult for employees to admit to experiencing it. This is due to fears around how they may be perceived by their employers or peers. Equally, it can be challenging for employers to address burnout without understanding what is causing the issue or how it is affecting the organisation.

Research from Mental Health UK reveals only 23% of UK workplaces have a plan in place to spot the signs of chronic stress and prevent burnout in employees. The impact on businesses can be significant as burnout can lead to other mental health issues when unaddressed. According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 17.9 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety between 2019 and 2020 in Great Britain alone.

Some employers are taking steps to tackle burnout, such as dating app Bumble which is offering employees a week off to recover from it. While this is a good reactive measure, being able to spot the signs of burnout could help employers take a more proactive approach.

Signs and symptoms of burnout

Burnout can present itself in a variety of ways but there are five common signs that employers can use to can help identify individuals who may be struggling with the issue:

Lack of productivity

A common manifestation is disengagement and declining productivity. Employees who are not as productive as they once were or appear to be distracted regularly may need support.

Negative attitude

A negative attitude is another tell-tale sign. This can include being cynical, dismissive towards others and showing an apparent lack of enjoyment in work.

Fatigue

When we’re stressed, it’s normal to experience exhaustion and fatigue. In a work environment, this may be noticeable in employees who appear tired, have slower reactions, or seem to approach their duties with low energy.

Absenteeism

Like any other form of long-term stress, burnout can negatively impact the immune system. Frequent sick days could indicate that mental health issues are impacting an employee’s physical health.

Irritability

In some people, anxiety can materialise as a result of burnout. This could result in individuals being highly irritable or more agitated than usual.

Fighting the stigma

The unfortunate reality is that there is a persistent stigma around burnout within some organisations. This can lead to strained and unhealthy relationships between suffering employees and their managers. For example, an employer may wrongly believe that an employee struggling to meet deadlines isn’t up to the job when the reality could be that they are experiencing chronic burnout and are afraid to speak up.

Normalising struggles at work is one way employers can help reduce the stigma around burnout. This can be achieved by having senior figures communicate to the workforce that the business acknowledges that burnout is a legitimate workplace issue. Employees at any level who feel they are not receiving the right support should be encouraged to discuss this with their manager and reassured that they will be respected and supported.

Businesses should also review the health and wellbeing support they provide for employees, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). Employers need to consider how existing support is being used by the workforce and whether the organisation could benefit from a more proactive, preventative wellbeing strategy that covers all aspects of mental and physical wellbeing. Employers that provide access to such solutions will help their people develop the resilience they need to cope more effectively with the stresses and strains of life and thrive inside and outside of work.

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