Half of managers fear staff are burning out because of Covid-19, report finds

Experts say change in working patterns and rise of e-presenteeism brought on by the pandemic is leading to increased risk of employee mental health issues 

Half of managers in the UK believe workers may be at an increased risk of burnout following a change in working patterns and behaviours caused by the global pandemic, a report has found. 

A poll of 2,000 workers and 500 managers, conducted by Robert Walters, found nearly half (47 per cent) of managers thought their employees could be at risk of burnout because of this. 

Similarly, in the report, the majority (87 per cent) of workers who had started working remotely during the crisis said they felt pressured to be more productive to “prove the case for working from home post Covid”, while 36 per cent of employees reported their mental health and wellbeing had suffered as a result of working longer hours during lockdown. 

A fifth (21 per cent) of workers said the pressure to deliver results had negatively affected their mental health and wellbeing. The report argued this pressure could result in burnout as staff “simply have too much to do, or lack the resources, skill or ability to do what’s required of them in the time allotted”.

Sam Walters, director of professional services at Robert Walters, said while mental health and wellbeing had been on most employers’ agendas before the outbreak, it had become a more urgent focus now. Before the pandemic businesses were increasingly offering policies geared towards “personal mental health issues” – including depression and anxiety – but Walters warned employers could see a rise in staff reporting they were burning out because of increased work pressures.

“Burnout is an entirely different and recently recognised condition which, unlike other mental health issues, can be directly linked to work,” Walters said. “As a result, employers have a crucial and central role to play to ensure their staff do not reach the point of burnout.”

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Last year, the World Health Organization officially recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon, describing it as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Recognised symptoms included feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy. 

The Robert Walters survey found a major cause of burnout for many employees was a perceived lack of control and autonomy in the workplace. This included in relation to how they did their work while working from home, and in terms of their future career prospects.

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for the CIPD, warned new work demands and working arrangements, including working from home, could put staff at risk from stress and burnout. She said employers needed to be alert to signs of unhealthy working practices such as “digital presenteeism”, and ensure employees took breaks and maintained boundaries between their work and home lives. 

“Employees should be encouraged to take their annual leave and discuss any concerns about their role or workload, or how they are feeling, with their line manager,” Suff said. “Organisations should regularly assess the main risks to people’s mental health and carry out stress risk assessments to help gauge the state of people’s mental health and any areas for concern.”

Managers also played a crucial role in spotting the early warning signs of distress or poor mental health among their teams, and needed to be supported to keep in touch and check on everyone’s wellbeing, Stuff said: “Support pathways like counselling should be in place so they can signpost to expert sources of help if needed.”

In previous research by Canada Life, almost half (46 per cent) of Brits carrying out their jobs remotely during lockdown reported feeling more pressure to be ‘present’ for their employer and colleagues, with more than a third (35 per cent) saying they had continued to work despite feeling unwell. 

Of those who had worked through illness, 40 per cent said this was because they didn’t feel they were sick enough to warrant a day off. However, more than a quarter (26 per cent) also reported workload as a reason for not taking a day off, and 16 per cent cited fear of redundancy.

Separately, in a survey by Perkbox, more than half (58 per cent) of employees said changes to the furlough scheme and future uncertainty over the world of work had negatively affected their mental health, leaving them with rising levels of stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, 46 per cent said they had felt disconnected from their team and business over the past month. 

Only 15 per cent of the 6,273 UK employees surveyed by Perkbox had experienced no negative effects on their wellbeing in the past month.