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.



Health, Safety & Wellbeing

HR: Health Resources? – July 2021

If you asked any HR professional at the beginning of 2020:
 
“How do you see your role changing in the next year?”,
 
None of them would have answered with:
 
“Protecting the employee population from a global pandemic.”
 
And yet…
 
HR has been the business area responsible for responding to most of the impact of COVID-19. We’ve been police, lawyers, firefighters, and counsellors.
 
Now, the unwinding of restrictions means HR can start focusing on business as usual. But it’d be wrong to think business as usual, will be business as before.

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HUMANS ARE THE H IN HR

Whilst May’s edition of Shaping Workplaces looked at the impact of the pandemic on working practices, in this one we’re looking at the impact on people.
 
Mental health has always been under-supported in the workplace, but it’s seeing a renewed focus as employers recognise their contribution to their employee’s ill-health.
 
Prior to the pandemic we’ve never thought ourselves responsible for illnesses sweeping the workplace. Equally, our health and safety has looked at accident prevention, and rarely the risks of sedentary lifestyles and job roles. Look at a call centre, for example, where workers are expected to remain seated at their phones outside of breaks (which are inevitably the legal minimum).
 
Could we also be about to see a wider change of attitudes to sickness in general? We’ve always been aware that coughs and sneezes spread diseases, but let’s be honest, we’ve never actually applied that to our sickness policies.

SNEEZY STEVEN

One change we might see is focusing on team illness levels, rather than individual sickness records.
 
Sure, Steven may have an unblemished attendance record, but he’s caused the other twenty members of his team to take 3 days absence each for flu.
 
That’s 60 sick days caused by Steven, and several deadlines missed. Should we really be giving him full marks at his annual review when it comes to attendance? Or should we be discussing his poor attitude to his colleague’s wellbeing?
 
After all, if this occured during the pandemic, Steven’s approach to sickness could have closed down the entire site!
 
But did Steven feel he needed to come in or face penalties? Would he not have been paid for the first three days of sickness? Would he have been unable to survive on statutory sick pay?
 
Many of our policies are so focused on tackling absence at an individual level that they actually cause it on a larger scale. These policies have been caught out by covid – but you can be certain many employers are expecting to reinstate them as soon as they can.

PREVENTING PRESENTEEISM

In a way, certainly for most of my career, we’ve been lucky. We’ve been able to encourage, incentivise and demand presenteeism, and our employees have responded with approval. But that’s changed. In just a year we’ve gone from complaining about having to pick up the workload of an absent colleague to glaring suspiciously at anyone with mild hayfever.
 
And with half an eye on a future pandemic, there’s no way we can go back to policies that encourage people to come in when sick. Which means two things. We need to make sure people aren’t infecting others. And we also need to make sure they’re not getting sick in the first place.
 
Even before the coronavirus pandemic far too many of us neglected our mental and physical health. Our working styles have been causing ill health, in the knowledge that health systems will fix the damage.

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE FOR HEALTH?

I can see two reasons why employers are running out of time to change their ways. 
 
The first is the ability of our health systems to deal with career affecting, but not life threatening, illnesses. The NHS, for example, has an elective treatment waiting list of over 5 million operations. Employers simply won’t be able to rely on employees being fixed up and returned to the workforce. We’re looking at long-term restricted duties, an increase in reasonable adjustments and an increase in absences.
 
The second reason is lack of mental health support. Mental health was underfunded before the pandemic, and some of the mental health implications of both the pandemic and lockdowns are terrifying.
 
You may have already seen the new report ‘Out of the Woods?’ from Resolution Foundation. Just one of its shocking finding was that fewer than half of respondents aged under 25 describe their mental health as ‘good’.
 
And we already know that mental health provision through the NHS is severely limited. Set against a backdrop of monumental waiting lists, we really can’t expect public services to deal with all of the impact.
 
Now, our employees have always had failing bodies and struggling minds. They are, after all, humans. But we’re about to enter a world where if the employer needs a fit and healthy workforce, they’ll need to bloody well make it happen themselves.
 
So expect to see increased focus on employee benefits like gym membership and workplace classes to improve baseline health; private healthcare to fix employees faster; access to on-demand mental health support.

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GETTING READY

There’re a few things you can get started with immediately.

ONE 

Review your employee benefits package. Private healthcare and support for healthy lifestyles is hugely desirable in a world where NHS support is more limited than we’re used to. It’ll also improve retention, reduce absences and showcase your employer brand.

TWO 

Identify mental health weak spots. We can target and prioritise our efforts on those working in areas most at risk of suffering poor mental health. Mental health first aiders, awareness campaigns and toolkits are all low-cost, high-impact and uncontroversial initiatives that everyone in your organisation can get behind.

THREE

 Go back over all your wellbeing policies to identify discriminatory practices. Be devil’s advocate and approach every line as the most vexatious litigant you can imagine. Most wellbeing policies are written with the best of intentions – you’re encouraging employees to be healthier and happier. But it’s easy to exclude employees with different abilities or needs.
 
Most of the time the solution is as simple as developing an alternative with the same outcome or reward.

Next Steps

Our Health and Wellbeing guidance provides practical advice for line managers and HR when either implementing a new or revising an existing Health and Wellbeing Strategy.

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