Last reviewed 8 July 2021
Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores the implications of burnout on both employees and employers, and how it can be managed.
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 that many people experience during the middle months of the year.
The term “burnout” has become more prevalent in recent times as employers try to manage the impact that increasing workplace demands have on employees’ health. This has only become more apparent during 2020, when many employees may have faced increased workloads, uncertainty and general pressure due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
In recognition of the potentially debilitating effects of burnout, the World Health Organization (WHO) included the term in the eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), meaning it is now a globally recognised condition.
According to the WHO, common symptoms of burnout include:
feelings of energy depletion or mental exhaustion
increased mental distance from one’s job
feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
reduced professional efficacy.
A key aspect of the WHO’s definition is that burnout only relates to work-related stress, which means that employers need to acknowledge that they play an important role in prevention. One of the key stumbling blocks is that burnout, and by association work-related stress, can be viewed as “part of the job” in many industries, or a necessity due to the challenges posed by the pandemic.
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 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.
Employers can do this by:
assessing working hours and workloads for any imbalance and ensure employees have the support they need to meet targets
ensuring employees have the training they need to be able to efficiently carry out their tasks
avoiding creating a situation where staff are pressured into working long hours or taking work home with them
encouraging employees to take their rest breaks and annual leave
ensuring availability of cover during an employee’s annual leave so they don’t feel like they need to “log on” to avoid a pile-up of work when they return
offering flexible working, or working from home
keeping an “open door” policy so that employees can discuss any concerns they have.
While some may think that this is a personal syndrome and something for an individual to deal with, this is an attitude that 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 health conditions leading to difficulties with how to appropriately manage such a situation. Managers will, therefore, need to be confident to identify behaviours that 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, 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.
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.
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 however.
A popular expression is that prevention is better than cure. This may be why, according to recent reports, the founder of the dating app Bumble made the decision to temporarily close all offices to “allow staff to de-stress and focus on themselves”. The decision was said to have been made after a case of “collective burnout” was observed across the business — likely due to the increase in demand for the service the app provides.
This is one way of dealing with burnout and preventing the case from worsening. However, not all businesses will be in a position to close all offices, meaning looking out for the symptoms and dealing with the issue on a case-by-case basis will be most important.
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, but 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.
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. 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 on how the causes will be managed to ensure the employee is no longer being placed under chronic workplace stress.