Why burnout is the big mental health burden

Robert Common says work needs to be done to counter the ‘always on’ working culture accelerated by lockdown, and that both the mental and physical tolls of burnout need to be recognised

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We've all been there; that moment of waking up on Monday morning and feeling like the weekend wasn't quite long enough to recover from the fatigue of the working week just gone.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic saw reports of anxiety and depression jump by a massive 25 per cent worldwide. However, burnout is one of the biggest mental health challenges that raised its head during lockdown and continues to be a significant issue.

Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling overwhelmed or swamped. It results from prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress that can take a real toll on your mind and body.

One of the first signs of burnout can be feeling disengaged with your work or job, accompanied by irritability and behaving in ways that are out of character. You might also have difficulties in making decisions or prioritisation.

Then there is the crippling physical exhaustion that no amount of sleep or rest seems to resolve. In fact, burnout can be a double-edged sword because another common symptom includes sleep issues, which naturally exacerbates any feelings of mental and physical fatigue.

During lockdown, working from home accelerated an 'always on' working culture, where online presenteeism and managers' expectations for teams to do more work are rife. In countries such as the UK, Canada and the US, employees report the time they spend logged on at their computer has increased by more than two hours a day since the pandemic, according to data by NordLayer.

Unfortunately, the end of lockdown has not resolved these issues. Workloads are still unreasonable, and the added pressure of the global economic crisis and looming recessions mean people feel unable to take their foot off the gas, even when running on empty.

Who Is feeling the burn?

Like all mental health issues, burnout does not discriminate, although research suggests that some groups may be more at risk than others. For example, a report by Future Forum covering over 10,700 workers in six countries showed that women are more than a third (32 per cent) more likely than men to experience burnout.

Conversely, the younger end of the workforce is also more likely to suffer burnout. Those under the age of 30 are 29 per cent more likely to experience symptoms than their older counterparts. Regarding workplace seniority, middle managers are taking the brunt and are at the highest risk of burnout (43 per cent) than any other job level.

Although burnout is undeniably a widespread and significant issue, often, it can be challenging for those experiencing it to find the help and support they need. Treatment for mental health issues like depression and anxiety - which can be a by-product of burnout - all too frequently goes down the path of medication as a first resort.

Understanding stress and how you manage it is essential to burnout recovery. Medication can be beneficial when used in isolation, but it doesn't treat the root cause of burnout. Resilience varies from person to person, so understanding your threshold can help. Emerging testing methods can give insight into our individual stress thresholds.

There also needs to be greater recognition that the stress that contributes to burnout can be as much a physical burden as a mental one, so effective treatment approaches must address both. 

An ever-increasing evidence base, from anecdotal accounts to independent peer-reviewed studies, demonstrates the efficacy of placing mindful practices like meditation and yoga at the core of treatment paths to address the underlying causes of mental health issues and burnout. Not only is this approach proven to be effective, but it also equips people with techniques they can use themselves, wherever they are and at any time.

If burnout is left untreated, it can become a major issue impacting all parts of a person's life. It can affect performance and productivity, and both working and personal relationships. There is also a strong link between stress and substance and alcohol abuse; without adequate treatment, individuals are left more likely to turn to drugs or booze as a coping mechanism.

At a time of economic instability, there is a clear collective benefit to addressing burnout. Aside from the personal impacts on the individual experiencing it, burnout has a wider cost. According to a report by the Mental Health Foundation and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), mental health problems cost the UK economy at least £117.9 billion annually.

Naturally, prevention is always better than cure, and a big shift is needed in global working cultures and the unfair expectations placed on employees. However, revolutions don't happen overnight.

We're moving towards a better work-life culture that minimises the risk of burnout at the source, but it will take time. What we can do right now is change how we support those experiencing it to give them the best chance of recovery and provide them with the understanding and tools to manage stress as they move forwards with their lives.

Robert Common is group CEO at The Beekeeper House