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Workplace Wellbeing

Tune in to avoid employee burnout

Burnout is not a new phenomenon but only now is it being recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in their International Classification of diseases. (ICD11). With the increased awareness and acceptance of mental health at work, employee burnout is at last being recognised as a major health problem.

Dr David Batman, Consultant Occupational Health Physician and member of the Virgin Pulse Science Advisory Board, says from experience that burnout is a major problem that can be prevented.

‘As a junior doctor, many years ago, I recall working in excess of 120 hours a week, with fractured sleep, no time to exercise or eat well and working in a high pressure and emotionally challenging jobs including A&E and Neonatal units,’ Dr Batman recalls.

‘A slow build-up of lack of sleep, fatigue, reducing confidence, feelings of failure, no self-worth and isolation from colleagues and friends took me to a psychological place I had never been before.

‘Luckily my understanding and supportive wife was there to stop the decline and I have never been back to that place,’ Dr Batman said.

Burnout was first professionally recognised by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who used the term to describe volunteers working at a New York clinic. He noted that a lot of the volunteers suffered from ‘gradual emotional depletion, loss of motivation, and reduced commitment’.1 He observed how new and enthusiastic volunteers, bright-eyed and keen to make a difference, lost their way in a broken and bureaucratic health system.

The initial concept of burnout was met with scepticism, and slowly its existence became accepted in human services industries, such as healthcare, education, social services, legal services and law enforcement. Most likely because it was more visible: Nurses and doctors working long and demanding hours and making life decisions constantly. Teachers dealing with unruly classes. Police suffering from trauma or feeling they aren’t making a difference.

With time, employee burnout has been witnessed in all fields of employment and is now being officially recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO states:

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully recognised and managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

 1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
 2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
 3. reduced professional efficacy.

With the WHO’s recognition and definition, it’s easier to see the difference between stress and burnout. People suffering from stress still have motivation and an urgency to get things done or make a change.

Burnout, on the other hand, is solely job-related. Sufferers have moved beyond stress and beyond caring, because they believe they can’t make a difference and any more effort isn’t going to make a change. People suffering from burnout have nothing more to give. They often do not recognise the state they are in and often colleagues are too busy, or do not know what to do, to help colleagues.

Gallup research suggests there are five factors2 that contribute to employee burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Other research suggests that employees who feel their job doesn’t have a purpose or aren’t in control of their role are also prone to burnout, where cynicism and disengagement are likely to develop.

The good news is that there are solutions – or rather – preventative methods that employers can implement to support their employees:

  1. Recognise the importance of mental health in their employees – and that it’s as important as physical health.
  2. From the ‘C’ suite down, develop an open culture where mental health is important and employees are empowered to talk openly about mental health.
  3. Risk assess areas of work and / or specific roles and jobs for potential increasing stress and eventually possible burnout.
  4. Educate Line Managers about mental health and burnout and encourage them to recognise employees potentially leading to burnout early and direct them to professional support services.
  5. Implement proactive Employee Wellbeing lifestyle related programs which develop employee resilience to minimise risk of mental and physical health and prepare them for challenges both at work and home.
  6. Encourage employees to be open if they are starting to suffer stress, before it slips towards burnout, and recognise if a colleague or friend appears to be suffering. Starting a simple conversation with the words ‘how are you’ is often enough to start a process of awareness and help.

And at a personal level, employees can:

  1. Ensure good sleep (quantity and quality are both important) to restore energy levels and reset the mind. Avoid stimulants before bed.
  2. Eat well – a healthy diet will prevent feelings of being run-down or feeling sluggish.
  3. Relaxation techniques – hobbies, meditation, mindfulness can prevent thinking about work.
  4. Exercise – to prevent depression.
  5. Social activity – shared conversations can provide perspective and differing points of view.
  6. Monitor screen time – turn off devices two hours before sleep. Avoid social media and internet surfing.
  7. Develop a work life balance where the ‘24 hour electronic office’ allows personal time.
  8. Organisational tools. A priority list can stop the feeling of being overwhelmed.

‘Unfortunately, in worst case scenarios employee burnout can lead to suicide. We can all help ourselves and others stay positive with workplace risk assessments, awareness, open discussion, recognition and support of our fellow colleagues. I hope this blog makes you think differently and take simple but effective actions as outlined above. Life is precious.’

Dr David Batman, Consultant Occupational Health Physician and member of VP Science Advisory Board

Feel free to share this article with your managers and employees. If your organisation is keen to build a culture that prevents burnout, be sure to read: Does your organisation minimise burnout?

  1. Burnout: A Short Socio-Cultural History
  2. Employee burnout, part 1: The 5 main causes