Preventing burnout starts in the workplace

Women looking stressed whilst working at table on a laptop

Dr Subashini M, Associate Medical Director, Aviva UK Health & Protection, sheds light on the issue of burnout and why you should try to counteract it in your workplace.

Burnout is a phrase that’s been bandied about for a long time, but it’s a serious issue, affecting people in all walks of life. From sports people, celebrities and politicians to air traffic controllers, police officers and medical professionals, burnout can be devastating. So, what is it and what can you do to prevent your employees from suffering from it?

What is burnout?

First identified in 1974, it’s taken over 40 years for the medical profession to settle on a definition of burnout. Last year, the World Health Organisation classed it as an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition. It defined it as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as a resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. 

So, what are the main symptoms of burnout? There are three things you should look out for in your employees:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from or cynicism or negative feelings about their job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

The key here is to think about burnout in an occupational context.

Prevention is one of the most effective strategies in managing burnout

As with many things, prevention is better than a cure, so it helps to identify potential cases of burnout early on by recognising changes in attitudes and motivation in your employees. Often the employee on the edge of burnout won’t recognise what’s happening. They may convince themselves they are just tired or that they are happy to take on more or that people are depending on them and no-one else can do the job.

It’s important to remember burnout is different from stress. While stress is often experienced as feeling anxious and having a sense of urgency, burnout is more commonly experienced as helplessness, hopelessness, or apathy.

This is where line managers can be invaluable in spotting the signs and addressing the factors contributing to burnout.

8 key things to look out for with burnout

Even though burnout is not classified as a mental illness, it can lead to mental health issues if not managed effectively. It can affect the long-term health of employees and it can strike anyone at any time.

Here are eight things managers and employees should look out for:

  1. Physical symptoms such as headaches, exhaustion, problems sleeping
  2. Lower motivation or increased mental distance from their job and relationships
  3. Increased frustration, negativity or cynicism
  4. Irritability and resentment
  5. Lower levels of concentration
  6. Increased working hours with less being achieved
  7. Increased errors
  8. Obsession over problems at home and work

If left unaddressed, burnout can lead to a number of issues, including:

  • physical, mental and emotional exhaustion
  • lower resistance to illness
  • poor physical and/or mental health
  • increased sickness absence
  • decreased productivity
  • low morale
  • increased staff attrition rates
  • workplace accidents.

All of this makes it clear that burnout is a problem from employers as well as the employees it affects. Read more about the seven signs of burnout and what you can do to prevent it. 

Looking after your employees’ mental health is good for your business

In our recent report ‘Embracing the Age of Ambiguity’, we found 43% [1]Footnote 1 of employees surveyed reported their wellbeing as being less than good. In contrast to that, just 26% agree their employer is genuinely concerned about their wellbeing.

These statistics are important because good mental health at work goes hand-in-hand with good employee engagement. There is strong evidence to suggest workplaces with positive mental wellbeing are more productive.

As an employer, it could make good business sense to look at identifying and addressing the wellbeing concerns of your workforce. If you do, you should also bear in mind that when it comes to mental health, one size rarely fits all. It’s important to look at packages that give your people individually tailored support.

Read the report to find out more

Our ‘Embracing the Age of Ambiguity’ report offers many valuable insights into how employees are really feeling about working life today. It can help you consider your strategy, rethink your models and focus on putting your budget into most effective ways to help your employees.

Download ‘Embracing the Age of Ambiguity report (PDF 9.2 MB) now.

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