Health, Safety & Wellbeing

Burnout and Workplace Wellbeing

How are you coping with mental load? Are you, like so many others in the profession, starting to experience burnout?

The International Classification of Diseases is clear that burnout is not a medical condition:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

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

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Clearly this is intrinsically linked not only to an individual’s wellbeing, but the whole organisation. Burnout is contagious and can easily travel through teams and social networks.

That’s demonstrated by the numbers. 70% of UK employees report experiencing the symptoms of burnout in the last 12 months. More than half of sickness is due to stress, anxiety and depression; whilst burnout itself isn’t a medical condition, it is a contributory factor to mental health conditions.

The same research discovered that fewer than 20% of employees would discuss their burnout with their line manager, and only 7% with HR.

On the face of it, this may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t. Burnout is a response to a functionally abusive workplace; should we expect someone to discuss the fact that they’re being pushed to breaking point with the entity responsible?

Importance of Workplace Wellbeing

Organisations are bad at understanding sentiment. And people are even worse at sharing it. Workplace surveys are a case in point. Ever bundled ‘Agree’ and ‘Strongly Agree’ responses together for convenience?

It’s a common interpretation mistake. It’s why the Net Promoter Score market research metric only includes responses in the top two deciles as positive, and anything in the bottom six deciles as negative – people are culturally conditioned to be ‘nice’ and ‘positive’ unless they’re absolutely bloody livid. We also miss another market research staple – stated versus revealed preferences. “Yes, I am satisfied with my role”, your employees say, whilst simultaneously applying for anything else they can.

There’s also a danger with acting on direct feedback. Henry Ford probably never said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”, but the quote’s point remains: employees only know their problem and are looking to you to provide the solution.

This means that employees are likely to attribute burnout to the wrong causes, will underreport worsening workplace conditions, and the only way you’ll know if you’re solving the issue is by employees voting (or not) with their feet.

However, there are foundational aspects to burnout that we can start by addressing. These include:

  • Work-life balance
  • Workload
  • Control

Work life balance has proven hard to maintain in the UK. Legislation like France’s right to disconnect – copied by other European nations – is unlikely to be implemented in the UK, especially due to the risks of requesting it. In the UK union membership is concentrated in certain industries and over 60% of union members work in the public sector, whereas in France collective bargaining covers 98% of all workers.

Protestations about how ‘our organisation supports work life balance’ are so often lip service. An individual’s work-life balance is dependent on both who their line-manager is, and the relationship between them.

Our Health & Wellbeing Guidance

For employees already suffering burnout, workload is likely to be a leading cause. Unfortunately, a framing bias is more likely to decide this is a case of requiring performance improvement (the holder is not able to do the job) rather than assessing whether any employee would be able to do the job. It’s not until a position needs replacing that the role is reassessed as part of the recruitment process.

Job insecurity and low autonomy are major risk factors for burnout, especially with sensationalist stories of AI replacing swathes of the workforce. Feeling out of control is likely to exacerbate any feelings of worry, causing anxiety and depression. And quite simply, organisational leaders can’t answer the questions employees have. 99% of organisations aren’t technology companies; they will follow the winds of change as and when pioneers introduce new innovations and contemporaries adopt them.

Indeed, the idea that one lacks control of their own life is not nearly so scary as knowing that the people we trust to have the answers are as clueless as everyone else.

Strategies for Promoting Wellbeing

We know that unscrupulous line managers are quite happy to use burnout as a tool. This is particularly dangerous if the manager in question has reached the level of relative incompetence (a Peter Drucker concept which posits that an individual’s final promotion will always be one step beyond their capabilities, at which point both they and the organisation are stuck).

But even when this isn’t the case, most of the go-to interventions fail to deal with the foundational issues that are driving the prevalence of burnout. What’s the point in mental health days or assistance programmes when the employee is still subjected to excess workload, lack of work-life balance and job insecurity? These initiatives simply end up being costly sticking plasters which treat the impact of burnout, rather than addressing its causes.

Instead, we need to confront the culture that causes burnout. Senior employees not using flexible working policies discourages others from taking advantage of it, hampering its uptake and effectiveness across the organisation.

Part of that culture is the concept of burnout itself. It’s not a special workplace diagnosis, it’s common or garden variety stress and anxiety being normalised. Indeed, in many workplace cultures the ability to still deliver under unhealthy levels of stress is lionised. Only by challenging this culture (and it’s interesting to see the generational differences identified in the research above) can we ever hope to start addressing wellbeing as a priority, not merely as a way to keep players in the game for longer before they collapse completely.

Our Mental Health & Wellbeing e-learning

There are proven tactics that will help prioritise wellbeing in your organisation. An important first step is gathering evidence. Being able to demonstrate the financial impact of sickness, recruitment, and the lost productivity caused by poor wellbeing is an excellent way to focus the minds of leaders. Coupling this with personal stories from employees adds further impact.

When handled and used well, employee networks can improve the quantity and quality of honest feedback you receive. People are more likely to agree with or support a view than to put it forward themselves, and networks give people the freedom and safety to do this.

Training line managers helps them not only recognise burnout amongst their subordinates, but also to recognise their own role in causing burnout. This is particularly important for leaders several steps up the pyramid, who are unlikely to receive direct feedback on how their actions and demands ripple down through the workforce.

However, the most powerful intervention of all may be to build an environment of psychological safety. Where employees feel able to speak openly, share concerns and have those concerns legitimately addressed without fear of reprisal or backlash, workplaces can begin to identify and resolve the root causes of burnout. This requires organisations to move beyond mere lip-service and actively demonstrate their commitment to employee wellbeing through actions, not just words.

Only by empowering individuals at all levels to raise issues, question unhealthy practices, and feel heard can the insidious culture that normalises and even valorises burnout truly start to shift. Stamping out the systemic factors enabling this toxic culture may be a long process, but it is one that organisations must undertake if they hope to cultivate sustainable, mentally healthy workforces who thrive, rather than merely survive.