Have you noticed any of the telltale signs of work burnout in your team lately? Perhaps you’ve seen a dip in their productivity? Or maybe there's a cynical or critical vibe in meetings? Workplace burnout is a type of work-related stress that can have a serious impact on the physical and mental health of staff, as well as significant flow-on effects for businesses. Learning how to identify the signs of work burnout and manage stress in the workplace is vital for the benefit of workers and the company. Luckily, there is a range of strategies and smart, supportive business tools available to help, including Flexiworks, an innovative platform from Officeworks. It’s been designed to help teams, no matter where or how they work, by supporting hybrid working, boosting employee engagement and helping manage stress among staff. But first, what exactly is work burnout?
Work burnout is a buzzword of the COVID era, and there’s evidence to suggest an overstretched, fatigued workforce is on the rise. A report commissioned by Asana found 77% of workers in Australia and New Zealand experienced burnout in 2020. Further research by The Adecco Group reports young leaders are particularly susceptible to the condition.
“We generally think there's been an increase in burnout across those who are maintaining their job and working under different circumstances,” says Gordon Parker, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales and co-author of Burnout: A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Pathways to Recovery. “The general view is that burnout rates have gone up and will continue to go up.”
It comes as no surprise to learn that work burnout rates have increased during the pandemic – common causes of burnout include lack of control at work, extreme busyness, work-life imbalance and lack of social support. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the condition as an official syndrome that results “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. WHO identified three main symptoms: energy depletion or exhaustion, negative or cynical feelings relating to work and reduced professional efficacy.
Michael Leiter, an honorary professor at Deakin University’s School of Psychology who has published widely on work burnout, says these signs of work-related burnout often manifest as tiredness early in the work day, a lost passion for work that was previously important and reduced confidence in the ability to get things done. “Any one of these can be a problem in themselves, but it’s only the combination that is the full work burnout syndrome,” says Michael.
Recent research has identified other common signs of work-related burnout including anxiety and stress, depression and low mood, irritability, sleep disturbances, memory loss and brain fog, and physical symptoms like aches and nausea.
Work burnout is especially common among ‘helping’ professionals, such as nurses, doctors, teachers, veterinarians and police officers. “It’s much more likely to be experienced by 'good' people – ‘good’ meaning loyal, dutiful, reliable and conscientious,” Gordon says.
Employees working long hours in demanding positions with high performance expectations are also susceptible. That could include lawyers, those working in finance or, as Gordon says, “anybody who's working in a corporate organisation where they feel duty bound to work hard and long”.
Michael agrees high-powered roles carry an elevated risk of work burnout. “The main vulnerabilities for work burnout are jobs for which people have an intense involvement and that call for deep commitment. Corporate leadership positions have those characteristics,” he says.
Worryingly, the long-term health impacts of work burnout can be severe on both employees and employers. Work burnout has a considerable overlap with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, as well as alcohol and substance misuse. It’s also associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Work burnout carries a significant economic impact, too. In fact, the World Economic Forum reports that the condition is estimated to cost businesses globally a whopping $473 billion each year – and that was before COVID came along. Gordon says the main consequences for employers are absenteeism, presenteeism (where workers turn up to work but aren’t engaged) and leaving the workplace altogether.
So, what can businesses do to prevent work burnout? Thankfully, there are several approaches you can take.
An important first step is acknowledging the work environment as a potential risk factor, rather than putting the onus on employees to ‘toughen up’ or be more resilient, says Michael. He suggests that tuning into how staff are feeling and what they need to manage their stress are key. “Listening to people about what has worked and what are the strains is the way forward,” he adds.
Supporting your team is essential, wherever work happens – especially from the get-go. That can start off with something as simple as ensuring employee workspaces are set up properly. The Flexiworks platform aims to solve a range of business needs. As well as providing employees with access to equipment that sets them up for hybrid working, or providing new starters with everything they need for day one, Flexiworks also offers advice and recommendations on products that assist in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of employees. In addition, companies are also able to provide staff with a free virtual workspace assessment to help ensure an ergonomic work-from-anywhere set-up that is safe, comfortable and productive.
Checking in on workplace wellness was something Malcolm Gittoes-Caesar, a principal at Coleman Greig Lawyers, applied at his firm of 140 staff during lockdown. In fact, Malcolm himself was diagnosed with work burnout earlier in the pandemic. “We stayed in touch with people – we would call around and make sure they were okay,” he says. “The biggest thing for people to avoid work burnout was the act of checking in.”
With staff back in the office for a maximum of three days a week, Malcolm says the practice has become official policy. “In my team – the family law team – there are four principals and we have divided up responsibilities to make sure everyone is being checked on by one of us,” he says. “It's always going to look like this. My team are more likely to put their hand up and say they're struggling, which means it's easy for us to help them.”
Likewise, at accounting technology firm MYOB, leaders are coached in how to stay connected with their team members, says Sally Elson, head of people advisory and talent. The introduction of formal mental health first-aiders has also been beneficial. “Team members can connect with someone trained to support them early with the challenges they are experiencing and help them to access any additional support they need,” says Sally.
Formal wellbeing programs that encourage staff to enjoy better work-life balance and experience less stress – think generous leave policies, mental health support sessions, yoga classes at lunchtime and bringing pets to the office – might sound like a gimmick, but the University of NSW’s Gordon Parker says these are very effective. “Some big companies in the US have done a cost-benefit analysis and showed that it definitely pays off.”
The easy-to-use Flexiworks platform can also help boost employee engagement. It can help empower teams with the products and services they need to feel supported while working away from the office, and can even help employers looking to enhance an existing Employee Benefits Program.
Gordon adds it’s also important to provide extra support for people at higher risk of work burnout, such as women juggling remote work while also caring for their children. “If you've got a female employee who’s got children at home as well as undertaking the general tasks of formal employment, that's a person who has a very high risk of burnout,” he says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, policies for technology use are another important element of work burnout prevention. Gordon recommends turning off technology and not checking emails outside of working hours, as well as reducing reliance on video conferencing. “Zoom is far more demanding of concentration and exhausting than general interactions in the office, and therefore people need to build in respite periods,” he says.