Burnout numbers are staggering – but what about ‘wear out’?

There’s another point on the spectrum of employee stress and overwork that businesses need to be actively tackling, argues Charles Alberts

Nowadays, burnout is increasingly bandied about in workplaces as a reference to the more extreme end of workplace stress and overworked employees. Since the pandemic, which drove a seismic shift in working practices for many, the number of employees experiencing burnout has increased significantly. Google trends data shows searches for ‘burnout symptoms’ have increased by 75 per cent in the last year, and 248 per cent since 2018. People are interested and looking for ways to deal with what they are facing. 

This isn’t surprising. Since 2020, work-life boundaries have blurred, workloads have increased and conflicts between priorities have intensified. While it’s true that a certain amount of pressure is a necessary and natural part of life, and stress can’t be entirely avoided, experiencing high levels of stress for a continued period of time is counterproductive to work and health. 

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as a direct consequence of badly or ill-managed chronic workplace stress, characterised by exhaustion and low energy, feelings of negativity or resentment towards a current job and reduced productivity. Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show there were around 602,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety during 2018/19. By 2020/21, numbers had risen to 822,000 – a 38 per cent increase.

These numbers are nothing short of staggering. They reveal the extent to which unhealthy working practices and the pandemic has affected people’s mental health. For employers, the impact of this work-related stress is significant. According to Aon’s Benefits & Trends Survey 2022, 96 per cent of employers said that stress is a concern to them, more than any other health and wellbeing-related issue. 

And now, a new trend appears to be emerging, one which has come off the back of Covid. If burnout sits at one end of the work-related stress scale, where employees are exhausted, depressed and anxious, and languishing sits at the other end, where they feel a sense of apathy and general emptiness, ‘wear out’ sits somewhere in the middle of the two.

‘Languishing’ in particular, was first identified as a dominant emotion among employees in a New York Times article in April last year. It’s possible that this will be overtaken by ‘wear out’ this year, as tolerance and resilience levels decrease after maintained periods of uncertainty, change, pressure and stress. 

All this matters, now more than ever. It matters because the overnight switch to many working from home from March 2020 changed working practices forever. Nearly two years on, most of us are still doing it. Out of necessity, thanks to the current Omicron variant, but also because companies are giving staff much more flexibility over when, where and how they work.

What this inevitably means is that on the whole, remote workers are often left to their own devices, having to self-manage ever-increasing workloads, home-life responsibilities and additional stresses brought about by the ongoing pandemic. 

If employers have defaulted to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach, languishing employees and those experiencing wear out or burnout from all these stressors, will inevitably get left behind and we risk a preventable drain on talent.

Now more than ever, employers have an opportunity to ensure they are meeting the needs of remote working employees and start to take a preventative approach to stress and burnout. 

Firefighting individual cases and handing out the proverbial plaster to affected employees is only going to work in the short term. For a sustainable, long-term solution, employers need to up the ante and take steps to identify potential areas in work, the working environment and culture which may be potential stressors for their employees.  

Workload is often forgotten about in the context of health and wellbeing. The focus tends to be on the employee to improve their lifestyle and behaviour: exercise more, sleep better, eat better, be more mindful and resilient. These are all important preventative measures, but recognising that workload – ultimately the responsibility of line managers – is often a major cause of work-related stress (hence the name), is important, too. 

So, in the context of remote working and flexible working practices, workload issues are only going to increase. A big and important step therefore would be for employers to carry out a stress-related risk assessment which could highlight any issues which need addressing. Are there specific challenges with workload and unrealistic demands? Is there a systemic culture of presenteeism? Do employees feel obliged to work evenings and weekends if certain KPIs are not met? Are there staffing issues? Are there issues with workplace morale? 

If there’s no other call to action employers take from this, then let it be this: it’s on employers, line managers, HR and others such as health and safety to collectively tackle these issues head-on to build a resilient workforce and to do so as a priority. The statistics speak for themselves - the worrying trend of languishing, wear out and burnout will only get worse if workplace stress isn’t prioritised for both in-office staff and those working from home. 

Charles Alberts is head of wellbeing solutions UK at Aon