What is workplace burnout?



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4 mins

person looking pensive at work

Workplace burnout is rapidly becoming this year’s pressing health and wellbeing challenge. So what is this phenomenon? And how can workers – and their employers – combat it?

Originally coined in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, ‘burnout’ is more than just a case of the blues, or, as a recent media report put it, “a trendy tag for tiredness”. Costing employers in the US an estimated $125 to $190 billion each year in healthcare expenses, it is not to be taken lightly. Recently classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon”, this is an issue that is on the rise and does not look set to be solved any time soon. But how does it differ from stress, and what can HR teams do to support employees who might be at risk?

What is burnout?

The WHO defines burnout as a work-related syndrome that is characterised by feelings of exhaustion; negativity or cynicism towards your job; and reduced professional effectiveness. It “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life,” it adds. This is a condition that goes well beyond ‘having a bad day’, and may be the result of a build-up of many factors such as unfair treatment, an unreasonable workload, lack of support from managers, unfulfilling work and long hours. From C-suite executives to office juniors, no one is immune. In a 2018 Gallup poll, nearly a quarter (23%) of the 7,500 workers surveyed said they felt burnt out ‘very often’ or ‘always’; a further 44% said they felt burnt out ‘sometimes’.

How to prevent burnout

Because of burnout’s adverse effects on employee health and wellbeing – and the fact that it can lead to increased absenteeism and absence rates, higher staff turnover, and lower employee productivity – it pays for HR to take a proactive approach to monitoring and supporting those at risk of burnout. Regular satisfaction or engagement surveys can help you identify issues in particular teams or locations. Listening to your people and using this feedback to create a more open, caring culture can be really beneficial. You could also consider offering more flexible working options to help people better manage their work–life balance, and reduce stress.

While you may not be able to entirely avoid the stressors that can contribute to burnout, you can take steps to mitigate them, such as getting enough sleep. In fact, a 2019 study by the University of South Florida found that losing as little as 16 minutes of sleep a night can make the difference between having a good or a bad day at work.

Likewise, ensuring that you take your full holiday entitlement is money in the bank where your mental health is concerned. One study found that 67% of people who had taken holiday reported that they felt greater job satisfaction afterwards, and 66% said they were more productive as a result. However, given that a survey by Glassdoor found 40% of UK workers only take up to half their annual leave each year, it is perhaps little wonder that so many are feeling the pressure.

With burnout seemingly reaching endemic proportions, studies suggests that one powerful way to combat the issue is to exercise mindfulness – the art of living more in the present moment. This has been found to be very effective at tackling stress and promoting wellbeing, so consider introducing mindfulness classes for staff, or promoting apps such as Headspace and Calm.

You can also seek guidance from colleagues who have suffered from burnout themselves; this recent Financial Times article includes suggestions such as improving workplace culture, the importance of dealing with bullies and knowing when it’s time to walk away from a job that’s bad for your health.

Some organisations are turning to the idea of a four-day working week to combat burnout, which, it is reported, has increased productivity and improved morale. In some cases, these shortened weeks involve working compressed hours, rather than fewer hours, so organisations would still need to be cognisant of stressors if they switched to this schedule. But it could be a way of attracting talent, especially in highly competitive sectors; a recent poll by YouGov found that three-quarters of UK workers would back a four-day working week.