Last reviewed 11 September 2020

In May 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognised work-related burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”. In fact, burnout among British workers has quietly but steadily reached shocking levels and this has been exacerbated in some cases by the pandemic. How many managers, asks Vicky Powell, would be able to spot the signs of burnout, and what can we all do to avoid and mitigate this modern corporate malaise?

Burnout: a modern-day epidemic

The recognition by the World Health Organization (WHO) of burnout as a work-related “phenomenon” in its 11th revision of The International Classification of Diseases stopped short of classifying the occupational problem as a “medical condition” but nevertheless grabbed headlines around the world, resonating with many managers and workers.

Biologically, burnout is a complex phenomenon affecting the nervous, immune and endocrine systems in the body. Health experts warn that burnout is associated with all kinds of ill-health outcomes associated with stress, such as depression, insomnia, musculoskeletal pain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death. In the worst-case scenario, burnout has been linked to suicides.

The WHO has described burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

It is clear therefore that burnout has its roots in unrestrained, or at the very least, poorly managed, work-related stress. At this stage, some more definitions might be helpful.

  • Stress can be defined as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on them.

  • Anxiety, on the other hand, has been described as intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.

  • Depression is another distinct feature related to burnout, characterised by low mood, sadness and loss of interest in daily life.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that work-related stress, depression and anxiety are the leading causes for ill health and sickness absence in Britain, accounting for around 44% of new and longstanding cases of work-related ill health in 2017/18. In total, there were some 602,000 cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2018/19, with a massive 12.8 million working days lost due to these conditions.

Research certainly implies a problem, potentially of epidemic proportions. A survey conducted for Virgin Management by YouGov concluded that over half (51%) of full-time UK employees said they had experienced anxiety or burnout in their current job. Interestingly, the figure was consistent among men and women and for employees in most age groups, except for those over the age of 55, where only a third said they had experienced it in their job.

Why is burnout such a problem?

The syndrome is associated with absenteeism, intention to leave the job and higher staff turnover.

Furthermore, among those who remain in the job, burnout leads to lower productivity and effectiveness at work, decreased job satisfaction and a reduced commitment to the job or organisation.

Top three signs of burnout

According to the WHO’s classification, burnout is characterised by three dimensions.

  1. Feelings of exhaustion or “energy depletion”.

  2. Increased mental detachment from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to the job.

  3. Poorer professional performance.

Anxiety is certainly a feature of burnout but is also a distinct concept. Early on in the burnout process, a worker might experience nagging feelings of worry or edginess but over time this could develop into full-on panic attacks, affecting their ability to even go into work.

Similarly from the WHO’s three top signs of burnout above, it is apparent that depression is another feature of burnout, but again is quite distinct. A useful personal rule of thumb, according to experts, is to look at the balance between good days and bad days at work.

In this regard, mental health charity The Help Guide warns you or colleagues could be on the road to burnout if the following are true.

  • Every day is a bad day.

  • Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.

  • You’re exhausted all the time.

  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.

  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

For managers and workers who like a scientific approach, there are also tests like the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which is designed to measure burnout using the key factors such as exhaustion, cynicism, and how well people feel they’re doing at work. Other burnout tests are also available from psychologists and mental health charities.

How can employers safeguard their staff from burnout?

According to Public Health England, burnout is related to:

  • workload and time pressures

  • conflicts and confusion experienced within work roles

  • lack of social support

  • lack of feedback

  • lack of autonomy and lack of participation in decision-making.

Those who are familiar with the HSE’s Management Standards for work-related stress will immediately notice the overlap between the above list and the HSE’s six key areas of work design which, if not properly managed, result in work-related stress, namely:

  • the workload and demands of the job

  • how much say or control a person has in their work

  • the support offered to workers

  • how positive (as opposed to conflict-ridden) relationship at work are

  • workers’ roles and how clear these are

  • how change is managed in the organisation.

Therefore, an organisation’s levels of work-related stress may be viewed as a useful litmus test for the risk of burnout facing staff. There are many strategies managers could focus on to reduce the risk of burnout, based around the HSE’s Management Standards.

Examples include the following.

  • Workloads: Keep an eye on workers who habitually work very late or fail to take their annual holidays and lunch. Open up discussions about this issue.

  • Control: Where possible, make sure employees have control over their pace of work, their work patterns and when breaks can be taken.

  • Support: Give staff regular and constructive feedback and keep communication channels open.

  • Relationships: Promote positive behaviours at work to avoid conflict and ensure fairness, with established policies for dealing with and tackling unacceptable behaviour.

  • Roles: Be crystal clear about what is expected from staff in terms of their responsibilities.

  • Change: Provide employees with timely information about big and small changes at work.

What workers can do about burnout

Mental health charities warn that when you are burned out, everything looks bleak. Ideally, it’s best to be aware of the early warning signs of burnout, such as irritability, low mood and initial feelings of being overwhelmed. However, even if you feel you are further down the line, charities such as The Help Guide and the Mayo Clinic, the US-based non-profit medical centre, argue there is plenty workers can do to regain their sense of equilibrium.

Below is a summary of some of the best advice on offer.

  • Evaluate your options. Talk about your concerns with your manager or HR and try to seek changes, compromises or solutions on your workload, a difficult business relationship, or whichever aspect of the job is causing the most stress.

  • Take a break. If you haven’t taken your annual holiday, consider this as a matter of urgency, and look at your working hours carefully, in particular periods of overtime and lunch breaks.

  • Seek support. Talk to colleagues, friends, a counsellor, your GP and loved ones to get support. A friend may not be able to “fix” the problem but having someone listening without judgment can be a great help. Your GP might recommend sick leave or medication.

  • Eat well. Stress can make us all crave sugary snacks or comfort foods but high-sugar and refined carbohydrate food only leads to a crash in mood and energy. Eating well — with a diet high in fruits, vegetables, omega-3s (in foods like salmon and walnuts) — can set you up for recovery. Avoid smoking and drink alcohol only in moderation: both might temporarily reduce stress but nicotine and hangovers only lead to higher levels of depression and anxiety in the longer term.

  • Try a relaxing activity. Yoga, meditation and tai chi are associated with effective stress management.

  • Get some exercise. Regular physical activity not only takes your mind off work but can help to better deal with stress on a biological level.

  • Sleep. Make sleep a priority for better wellbeing and to protect your overall health.

  • Mindfulness and meditation. Deep, slow breathing can be practised anywhere, including in a tense moment at work. Research shows these practices can be very helpful in dealing with stress.

Finally, perspective is key: recovery can be slow and so being kind to yourself is essential. Also, keep an open mind when considering all your options… a demanding or unrewarding job is never worth your good health.

As always, prevention is better than cure

In many ways, burnout can feel like the end of the road in a job, in the sense that the responsibilities of role become quite impossible to fulfil — but recovery is possible and, better still, spotting the warning signs early can head off the full-blown version of the syndrome.

If you’d like to provide your employees with access to confidential telephone counselling service where they can get help with any problem they may be experiencing, including mental health and wellbeing issues, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider: 0844 891 0350.