Mon 02 Oct 2023

Burnout in the workplace

Nicole Moscardini, associate in the employment law team discusses burnout in the workplace, and the ways in which employees and employers can prevent it. 

How can employers and employees prevent and manage burnout?

Since the pandemic the world of work does seem to have become more comfortable talking about and, to some extent, dealing with mental health in the workplace. It is sometimes easier however to talk about mental health issues that are unrelated to or not caused by what is happening in workplaces. Mental and/or physical health problems that are related to working conditions can be more difficult to raise.  One such issue that we have seen more of in recent years in the workplace is burnout.  

What do we mean by burnout?

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is typically characterised by three key dimensions:

  1. Sustained feelings of exhaustion, for example an individual feeling depleted, fatigued or suffering from low energy;
  2. Depersonalisation, meaning an individual may feel withdrawn or increasingly mentally distanced from their job, or they might have feelings of negativity or cynicism towards their job;
  3. Reduced feelings of professional accomplishment or reduced professional productivity.

How do workers get to the point of burnout?

Most roles have an element of pressure such as targets, deadlines or client expectations. However "stress" is where we feel what is being asked of us is more than we are equipped to deal with, be that because of a lack of resources or time or experience. That can leave us feeling out of control and that can negatively affect mental and physical health which may lead to burnout.

The Health and Safety Executive ("HSE") has identified six areas of work that, if not well managed, can lead to increased stress levels in a workforce.  These are:-

  1. Workload, demands and the working environment;
  2. Control - how much say a person has in their work and the running of the organisation they work in;
  3. Support provided by line manager and/or colleagues;
  4. Relationships - does the culture promote good working relationships and collaboration;
  5. How much clarity does the worker have about their role and what is expected of them; and
  6. How change is managed and communicated in the organisation, be that large or small changes.

Often when we are advising employees who find themselves in this situation there are a number of different sources of stress - most recently the cost-of-living crisis has had an impact. 

What can employers do to prevent burnout?

Employers cannot fix everything but they can educate themselves and their employees on what signs to look out for so they can recognise when an employee may be suffering from burnout. One of the main signs to look out for is disengagement, whether that is not contributing to meetings, avoiding taking on new tasks or stopping returning calls and emails. A dip in performance is also a red flag that managers should be able to pick up on, as is an employee who becomes particularly sensitive to negative feedback or constructive criticism.

A wellness action plan is one practical tool that a manager can put in place with individuals that identifies what keeps them well at work, what may cause them to struggle and then what signs the individual believes may indicate they are struggling. Having told their manager what signs those are likely to be, if the manager then spots them, it will make it considerably easier for them to check in and start a conversation around how the employee is feeling. 

Employers do have a duty of care to look after the health and wellbeing of their staff, and that includes mental health and how they might anticipate risks to health.  The HSE recommend stress risk assessments but there are other frameworks out there that can help. The Mental Health at Work Commitment is a simple framework that builds on various charters, accreditations and audit approaches that have been around for a number of years but consolidates them into one framework that any employer, regardless of size, can put in place to support employees. NHS inform's Five steps to mental wellbeing builds on evidence suggesting that there are five steps that can be taken to improve mental wellbeing - these are connection with the people around you; being physically active; learning new skills; giving to others and being mindful.

While these types of tools are very useful, it is important to keep in mind the human element of supporting employees. Training and upskilling managers to identify and deal with burnout is a crucial part of the picture.  It is not easy for managers to find the right balance of having appropriate conversations with employees without making them feel uncomfortable or pushed to disclose something they feel is very personal. 

Ideally the more training managers can be given the better, and the more bespoke policies can be to a particular organisation the better. Different organisations and industries will have different issues, so there will not be a one size fits all answer. A practical step such as reducing workload may well make a difference but could be seen as something of a box ticking exercise. Backing that up with the personal touch of regularly checking in with the employee, having an ongoing discussion and being flexible can be particularly valuable.  Where an employee displays signs of burnout, trying to find out what may have contributed to the problem arising through discussion can be useful learning for an organisation to prevent similar things happening in future.

Employees also have some responsibility for their own health and safety. They need to ensure they take appropriate breaks, raise issues with their employers if they are struggling and try to be open and honest about their health.  If discussing that with their line manager doesn't feel right then mental health first aiders, if any, or members of HR may be more approachable. Ensuring proper boundaries are in place, particularly if working from home is also important. Not letting work time bleed into non-work time can be difficult, but practices such as having set work hours and, if possible, a work area can help.

What are the risks to employers if they don't get it right?

There are significant risks to employers if they don’t get it right. Immediate costs for employers can arise from poor productivity levels and high absence levels - indeed if employees feel they are not getting the support they need from their employer they may leave taking a wealth of knowledge with them and leaving the organisation with the costs of recruiting and training up a replacement. An organisation's culture will also suffer if there is high staff turnover, and their reputation may be damaged within their sector or industry which could have wider implications, for example potential new clients will not want to engage the services of an organisation if it is commonly known that the organisation's staff are all suffering from burnout, nor will potential new staff members want to apply to work in such an environment.

Legally there is the risk of employment tribunal claims including disability discrimination and potentially constructive dismissal claims. A personal injury claim for losses flowing from an employer's breach of their duty of care towards an employee may also be possible. 

Any of these things can lead to significant costs for organisations so it is worth putting in place time and resources to prevent burnout where possible and to recognise and manage it appropriately if it does arise.

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