Last reviewed 7 October 2020

With the World Health Organisation officially recognising burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”, and the coronavirus pandemic causing difficulties across the spectrum, the focus on the workplace risk of burnout is higher than ever — leading to employers considering how to manage this problem.

The burnout syndrome

Many have heard of the word “burnout” at some time during their professional, and personal, lives, with newer phrases such as “mid-year burnout” becoming increasingly common to describe the feelings of lethargy which many people experience during the middle months of the year.

While such a concept may have been brushed off by those who have had little experience with such feelings, the World Health Organisation (WHO) last year revised its International Classification of Diseases to upgrade burnout from a state of exhaustion to a syndrome influencing health status. Specifically relating to the occupational context, WHO describes burnout as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been managed successfully”. It lists three characteristics of burnout, namely:

  • feeling depleted of energy or exhaustion

  • an individual’s increased mental distance from their job, or negative and cynical feelings towards their job

  • reduced professional efficacy.

Although the WHO stresses that burnout is not classified as a medical condition, the upgrade to an official syndrome recognises the greater understanding of the seriousness of burnout and how this is contributed to by an individual’s professional environment and working life. As this is now a syndrome, the WHO is also creating a greater understanding of the potential impact burnout can have on an individual’s physical and mental health.

Managing burnout

As burnout is recognised as an occupational phenomenon, it is obvious that it exists and is contributed to by employment, especially in a year where employees have faced the fears, uncertainty and stresses associated with working through a global pandemic. Not all staff were furloughed and, for those who have worked throughout the pandemic, an increase in workload may have caused signs of burnout to start to show themselves, and impact upon their performance overall. Employers are, therefore, best placed to interject and seek to prevent burnout occurring, or to support those who are burnt out. While some may think that this is a personal syndrome and something for an individual to deal with, this is an attitude which can lead to burnout becoming prevalent in their business and having a significant negative impact on factors such as retention, productivity and growth.

Recognising the symptoms

As with those suffering from poor mental health, individuals who are suffering from burnout will often display similar symptoms, however this will differ from person to person. While most people will have a day when they are not motivated to carry out work, burnout is likely to present itself as a gradual worsening of symptoms as chronic workplace stress fails to be managed. The difficulty, however, is that symptoms of burnout may look similar to symptoms of stress, depression or other mental ill health conditions leading to difficulties with how to appropriately manage such a situation. Managers will, therefore, need to be confident to identify behaviours which may be associated with burnout or poor mental health, and then seek to support their team.

Some common symptoms of burnout include the following.

  • Physical symptoms — including feeling tired and drained, constant illness, change in sleeping habits or frequent headaches.

  • Behavioural symptoms — including procrastination, isolating and withdrawing from others, giving up responsibilities, increased frustration with others, and poor timekeeping.

  • Emotional symptoms —including a sense of failure, detachment, lacking motivation, increasing cynicism, negative perception or lower satisfaction.

Supporting employees

Employees who feel burnt out will often feel that they are beyond caring and are worn out, while not necessarily recognising that these feelings are because they are suffering from burnout.

Managers who have identified any of the above symptoms, or have noticed a change in their employee’s attitude, should be taking action to ascertain the cause of this to ensure they are complying with their duty of care towards employees. After all, burnout is a symptom of mismanaged chronic workplace stress which places the onus on employers and managers to take remedial action.

The first step will be to invite the employee to a meeting, conducted remotely if needed, to discuss their symptoms and ask them whether there is any workplace support necessary. It is at this stage that some confusion may be present regarding whether the employee is burnt out, stressed or suffering from other conditions. Managers should, therefore, be prepared to ask a range of questions or signpost the employee to a professional service which can help this classification. Managers are not expected to be burnout experts, but questions can include:

  • Are you failing to be satisfied by work and your achievements?

  • Do you feel critical or cynical about your work?

  • Are you lacking energy and finding it hard to concentrate?

  • Are you feeling disillusioned about your role?

Once it is identified that the employee is likely to be suffering from burnout, managers will need to assess what support can be put in place. Not only should they tackle the causes as discussed below, but employees may need additional support in the form of counselling, medical guidance or the use of a support network. Highlighting any available internal support or advising employees on external groups shows the supportive and positive culture the organisation has towards combatting burnout.

Tackling the causes

As burnout is identified as a symptom of chronic workplace stress that has not been managed properly, there is a clear link between the workplace and the symptom. Therefore, managers will need to speak to the employee and assess the internal workplace practices to identify the causes that have led to an employee feeling they are burnt out. It may be that the employee has an unachievable workload, is working excessively long hours or is lacking the support mechanisms to carry out key parts of their role. It may even be that additional tasks they took on during lockdown need to now be taken back off them, especially if more staff are returning to the workplace. Whatever the case, there are likely to be one or several workplace causes which, once identified, managers should review and agree how the causes will be managed to ensure the employee is no longer being placed under chronic workplace stress.

Raising awareness

While certain employees and managers will feel familiar with the medical syndrome of burnout, there are likely to be just as many employees who have not heard of this or will simply classify this as unimportant. Therefore, it will be key for employers to raise awareness of burnout, the negative impact this can have, and how to identify and manage burnout when it occurs. Not only will this be important for managers who will be responsible for tackling burnout causes among their team, it will also be important for individual employees to be provided with burnout awareness.

First, if employees know what burnout is and how this presents itself, they will be able to identify when they are experiencing these symptoms. In turn, this will empower them to speak up and notify their manager that they are feeling burnt out, rather than being left to deteriorate and leave this unaddressed. Burnout awareness may take place as part of an organisation’s current awareness and wellbeing schemes, or as a separate area with its own initiatives, such as training and awareness days focusing on this issue.

Health Assured

For professional advice, including mental health and wellbeing issues, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider on 0844 891 0350.