According to the Labour Force Survey, the UK lost 15.4 million working days in 2017/18 to work-related stress, depression or anxiety, with 239,000 new cases reported. Increasingly, severe cases are being recognised as ‘burnout’.
What is 'burnout'?
There is a view that burnout is something new that particularly affects Millennials. That is quite untrue. What is true is that only now has the World Health Organisation (WHO) finally recognised burnout as a real syndrome with mental health consequences.
According to the WHO, burnout is characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion. It leads to increased mental distancing from the job or feelings of negativism or cynicism and reduced professional efficacy. The causes can be varied – the victim may be putting in excessive hours, failing to take leave, or obsessively micro-managing the small tasks that are well below their pay grade.
The ‘work/life balance’ is no longer straightforward. For most people, work is a large part of life. In the past its routines and certainties were for many people a ‘safe space’ in a complex existence, whereas now, it is seen as volatile and less certain, with rapid change, job insecurity, new technologies, increased complexity, and this simply adds work anxieties to a list of wider life pressures that threaten mental health.
Whose responsibility is it to recognise if someone is ‘burning-out’?
Employers clearly have a responsibility to prevent and intervene. An essential is for senior managers to investigate if their juniors start to show significant changes in their attitudes and performance and be prepared to challenge the claim that ‘really, I’m all right’. That raises two questions: firstly, is the organisation structured so that managers know what ‘normal’ is for their staff, and second, who monitors the mental health of the senior managers themselves?
How to prevent burnout
Prevention is better than cure – burnout isn’t just being worn out and it won’t be cured by a fortnight in Magaluf. Indeed, in severe cases victims may be permanently damaged. Prevention may require some significant change to corporate culture and practice. There are several areas that deserve attention:
- Mission: Do employees understand and buy in to the goals and objectives? Do they see how they are contributing? Can they see how their role is making the company and the world better?
- Responsibilities: Do employees understand what is expected of them, and equally, what is not? Is it clear what an achieved goal looks like, or are the targets ever receding and unattainable? Are tasks reasonably achievable in the time allowed?
- Recognition and feedback: Do employees ever get the ‘well done’ or the ‘thank you’ message? Do they feel valued? Do they receive constructive criticism and can they in turn offer criticism? Do employees feel that senior management has ‘got their back’?
- Control: Do employees have real opportunities to decide what methods and approaches to their tasks work best for them? Or do they, particularly with increasing digitisation, feel ever more like cogs in a machine?
- Training and development: Do employees have the training they need to be effective? Are they being retrained so that they remain confident and secure even as tasks, processes, technologies change? Are they receiving the sort of development that offers a progressive future?
Most of these approaches cost little or nothing – saying ‘thank you’, for example. Others, such as appropriate staffing levels, and training and development, are things that any firm with an eye on a sustainable future should be doing anyway. It does require the organisation and its senior managers to be empathetic, and see staff as people rather than as units of production, however, there is a fine line between empathy and paternalism.
Developing a corporate culture that is sympathetic to issues around ‘burnout’, that recognises and understands the warning signs in individuals and that works constructively, and with empathy, to reduce the pressures that can lead to mental distress, can bring significant gains in terms of the well-being of the workforce and the overall performance of the business.
A word from Leigh Anderson, Managing Director, Bis Henderson Recruitment...
With its long hours, increasing demands to deliver goods at double-quick time, cost pressures and uber competition, the logistics sector is likely to see more incidents of burn-out than other industries due to the nature of the work. Smart companies are now investing in mental health programmes for staff – in particular drivers – and seeing results in terms of competitive advantage, staff retention and loss of absence.