Workers were at risk of burning out well before the pandemic even arrived. But what the pandemic has done is strip the emotional reserves of people down to the core, exposing their unique emotional, physical, and social vulnerabilities. Simply ‘being human’ comes with great challenges but being human in a global pandemic and coming out the other side unscathed, well that requires the ability of a superhuman. And superhumans we are not.
In short, we are on the precipice of a burnout epidemic and there’s no question; now is the time to act.
Recognise that burnout is entirely unique
In 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognised burnout in its International Classification of Diseases. Some employers have acknowledged the severity of this occupational phenomenon, investing heavily into employee wellbeing and cultural strategies to keep it at bay, others have flirted with the idea, and there are still a number that fail to accept broken minds as part of their workplace.
Now, a lot has happened in the space of two years, no less than a global pandemic which has added multiple more layers to the work-life-balance conundrum.
But one thing has remained the same, and that is in the challenge of the way burnout presents itself. The symptoms of burnout are quite unique to every individual. You may see it in increased physical and emotional exhaustion and depleted energy levels. The list is vast.
So, how do employers create a strategy that tackles burnout for their employees, but one that also addresses the needs of every single person in the workplace?
Trends in preventative measures to avoid burnout
The well-being movement in the 2000s provoked a shift in the workplace. Businesses of all sizes saw the recruitment and retention benefits of initiatives that addressed the health, happiness, and work-life balance for their employees.
One of the most popular trends that appeared from this shift was the ‘benefit’ of unlimited annual leave.
It’s a dreamy sounding prospect for the employee – work hard and in return take as much time out of work as you like – and it’s a trend that caught on at pace. In fact, jobs board Reed reported a 20% increase in the number of new openings advertising unlimited holidays as part of a benefits package.
Employers had hoped that offering unlimited time off would also help prevent stress in the workplace. But the reality was very different. It may have tempted the best talent through the door, but for many companies, it caused more issues than it solved.
Some businesses found that their employees were unable to get to grips with the lack of parameter that came with unlimited annual leave. It resulted in many employees taking very few, or no holiday days, especially those who worked in fast-paced and highly pressured environments with a traditionally ‘always on’ culture.
Also, unlimited annual leave often increased anxiety levels for those who were already concerned about their workloads, meeting deadlines, and delivering on expectation. This accumulation of pressures then led to faster rates of burnout.
Is a surprise vacation for your employees the answer to burnout?
In June, dating app Bumble announced that it had shut its doors for a week to thank its team for their hard work and resilience in the pandemic.
The gesture from Bumble’s CEO set a precedent. It has paved the way for new thinking around employee well-being, specifically burnout. The company responded to signs and took action to address a potentially escalating issue. Indeed, it was an inspiring step, and one which likely helped to prevent the issue spiralling.
There is no doubt that any step taken to improve the health and well-being of a workforce is to be applauded. One of the greatest benefits is that actions often help individuals feel valued, appreciated, and heard.
We should recognise that every workforce is made up of individuals who all have different needs, varying stress thresholds, personalities, and home pressures. This means that whilst some people may welcome a forced break with open arms, others may find it provokes stress and anxiety, concerned that they will return to a backlog of work or miss deadlines, for example.
With this in mind, I urge employers to consider a flexible approach to burnout; one that takes the individual needs of their employees into account and one with measures to support those who may need additional reassurance or extra provisions.
8 questions to ask about your burnout strategy
The golden question here is, how do companies build strategies that will truly do their part in preventing and tackling burnout in the workplace for all their employees?
The key here is to address the basics and that starts with asking yourself some important questions:
- Do you recognise burnout as a part of your business? Perhaps the most basic, but arguably most important step, is to recognise that burnout will exist in your workplace. Denial of the issue will only prevent you from putting effective steps in place to prevent and manage it. Expect burnout to have mental and physical manifestations. Normalising these attitudes can also help remove the shame that some people may feel about burnout.
- Do you recognise your employees as humans? Now, this may sound obvious and slightly bizarre, but read on. Every individual in your workplace has a different threshold and different needs. If employees in your workplace are struggling with burnout, know that they are not incapable, they are not failing, they are simply human. After all, simply being human carries occupational risk.
- Do you listen to your employees? You can help prevent burnout by truly listening to your employees. Be the eyes and ears in your workplace and look out for warning signs, so you can act before the issue reaches a damaging climax. Do your employees have a clear line of communication to share and talk about their worries. Do they know who to turn to? If they do not feel they are being heard, do they know who to escalate their concerns to?
- Do your teams look out for one another? The fact is, it can be hard for an individual to recognise burnout in themselves. This is partly because identifying burnout involves self-reflection – a skill. But, identifying that there is a problem, is the first step to making an impactful change. You may not work closely with every individual in your company, but there are bubbles of teams dotted around you that do. Are your teams set up to look out for each other, report concerns and support one another at times of high pressure?
- Do your employees have fair workloads? Let’s get a real handle on your employees’ workloads. It’s time to question whether they are truly manageable and fair. Redundancies and furlough have meant that employees have been asked to do more with less and are burning out as a result. It is no surprise then that Gallup reports the number two reason for burnout is an unmanageable workload. Question the workload of every individual in your company. Is it a healthy challenge, or is it contributing to their stress, anxiety and ultimately their chances of burning out?
- Do you have a positive culture around annual leave? Annual leave may not be a cure for burnout, but enforced rest can be an effective measure to prevent burnout. However, keep in mind that annual leave only works as a prevention method if it is used and understood. Ask yourself, do we promote annual leave as a positive, or do your employees feel guilt when they take time off? Do we expect employees to put in the extra hours either side of a holiday or will we accept that things will be a little quieter during this period?
- Do your employees take ownership for their well-being? It can restore one’s sense of agency and identity when someone takes charge of their own life. It is important your employees are aware of this. Employers and employees must work collaboratively and accept a shared responsibility. Very often employees expect their employer to know what’s happening and then dictate down to them as to how to solve the issue. But employers and line managers are not mind readers. Ultimately providing an unconditionally safe space in which employees feel comfortable to share, without fear of being punished or stigmatised, is key.
- Is your approach to burnout the same as it was pre-pandemic? The lives we live today are very different to those that we lived in pre-pandemic. Life has continued for us all, but we are all appearing from the pandemic as different people, and we need tools to dig us out from our shared year of trauma. The full array of suffering has not even presented itself yet. We know from past studies on major life disruption – natural disasters, epidemics etc – that the burden of mental health increases afterwards. If your approach to burnout is the same as it was in 2019, with little focus on the impact of the pandemic then it is likely not set up to support the needs in your workplace.
Businesses can work to prevent burnout by ensuring employees are involved in building a holistic health and well-being strategy. That way, employers will ensure they are building something that truly reflects the needs of the workforce, rather than jumping on a trend which may be of little benefit to the many. Some people are simply trying to muster the energy for re-entry into non-pandemic life and these people may be a part of your workplace.
Up to one-third of your workforce may be impacted by compromised mental health or worry and irritability (ONS). This ends up costing £1300 per employee in the UK workforce. Our corporate mental health service can help your team lead healthier, happier lives.
Lucie Ironman is a psychological well-being facilitator at Vita Health Group.