Why the public sector needs a bespoke anti-burnout strategy

Successful strategies in the private sector will not work in the public sector because the daily experiences of employees is very different, says Anas Nader

Britain has a burnout problem and it’s hitting public sector workers hardest. This condition, a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, is estimated to have cost the UK economy 17.9 million working days in 2019/20. And since the start of the pandemic, three-quarters of all workers reported burnout symptoms. 

However, when you dive into the research data, significant differences in rates of burnout emerge between the private sector and the public sector. According to a Mind survey, public sector workers are over a third more likely to say their mental health was poor compared to their peers in the private sector (15 per cent versus 9 per cent), and far more likely to say they have felt anxious at work on several occasions over the last month (53 per cent compared to 43 per cent). 

All signs point to the fact that burnout in the public sector is getting worse. And our tools to deal with it aren’t up to scratch. 

Switching up the medicine  

So why do anti-burnout strategies so often fall flat when used in the public sector? A key explanation is that employers too often rely on ‘cookie-cutter’ solutions, copied from the private sector with no alterations to reflect the unique challenges of public sector work.  

It’s shortsighted to believe that the strategies successfully used by private sector employers can be borrowed by the public sector. In fact, they’re almost sure to fail. Why? Because the daily experiences of private sector workers are very different from their public sector counterparts. From the nature of the systems they must operate within to the customers they serve, these differences have a big impact on how employees experience burnout, and on the success or failure of burnout strategies. 

If you’re a public sector employer struggling with this growing crisis, it’s likely that one or more of the below reasons are the cause: 

1. It’s time to rethink structures for flexible working

Typically, opportunities for flexible working are more readily available in the private sector. Therefore, employees can be encouraged to seize them as an antidote to burnout. However, although many public sector employers also make efforts to embrace flexible working options, limited access to the necessary tools means that the success of their initiatives can be piecemeal. 

For example, a central promise of the latest NHS People Plan was to make flexible working the ‘norm’ for all staff. This is sorely needed, as 56,000 people left the NHS between 2011 and 2018 citing work-life balance as the primary reason. However, today, the NHS workforce models that staff must work with remain largely stuck in the twentieth century.

In a drive towards finding efficiencies, organisations traditionally use inflexible workforce management systems that dictate to workers where and when to go and what they can or cannot do. These systems fail to take into account workers’ preferences around their schedules or offer flexibility. Few options exist aside from full-time hours, and dedicated employees are often forced to quit completely because they can’t find a suitable flexi-hours arrangement. The workers who remain often do not feel valued, but instead can feel treated as a number on a system, a tool for getting the job done. 

Talking about the idea of flexible work is not enough – promises must be followed up with the right infrastructure to make flexible working work. As an employer, it’s time to seek out the intelligent staffing technology and smart algorithms that accommodate for worker preferences as much as possible – and this can all be done without compromising your workforce planning.

2. Taking time off needs to be made easier

Recently, companies including Bumble and LinkedIn have hit the headlines for giving ‘surprise’ weeks off to all staff for the benefit of their mental health. But in the public sector, the problem often isn’t a lack of annual leave days, but a struggle to actually find an appropriate opportunity to take them.

In the NHS, junior doctors only find out what their rotas will look like a few months (sometimes weeks) in advance, giving them no say in when they can take their allotted leave days. They can’t effectively recover from exhausting night shifts, and crucial professional exam preparation must be squeezed around shifts on the hospital floor. This situation helps to explain why a third of junior doctors have experienced burnout in the past year.

Public sector employers need to roll out workforce systems that empower workers to access leave according to their needs, rather than the demands of a rota. Such systems include automated ways for colleagues to quickly and safely fill shift vacancies, when their colleagues take annual leave, so admin teams are not burdened by a manual search for staff to fill rota gaps.

3. Collaboration should never be an afterthought 

Excessive workload pressures are major contributors to burnout, and staff shortages tend to make them worse. In the private sector, hiring is generally held as the antidote to staff overwork. But in the public sector, the problem could often be better solved by transforming the way that existing staff work. 

Public sector organisations could employ hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. But they are spread across different sub-organisations, often stuck in a silo or channel with restricted communication and obstructed visibility. Although staffing capacity may exist in the organisation, reams of red tape often prevent the flexible movement of individual workers, preventing the organisation from redeploying workers to where the need is greatest.

Solutions include freedom of movement powered by compliant digital passporting, enabling workers to pick up shifts across a number of sites while avoiding unnecessary duplication in background checks.

In short, it’s time to acknowledge that hiring is not always the right cure for a workforce crisis. Rather than relying on external agency staff to patch over the cracks, or leaving shifts unfilled, rethinking how existing staff are deployed should be the first port of call. 

Public sector staffing is under pressure of previously unimaginable intensity, and the need to embrace new ways of creating a sustainable workforce has never been more acute.

If you are a public sector employer who’s serious about battling workforce burnout, it’s time to reevaluate your strategies with the unique needs of your employees front and centre. Only by empowering, supporting and nurturing workers with bespoke, modern staffing solutions will it be possible to reverse burnout trends and sustain a robust public sector workforce in the years ahead.

Dr Anas Nader, NHS doctor, healthcare workforce expert and CEO at Patchwork Health