Long reads

Could you be at risk from burnout?

20 Feb 2020 By Maggie Baska

Burnout at work is so widespread and so devastating, it is now an officially recognised phenomenon. But do HR professionals really understand what’s behind it?

It was a feeling that started to creep up on Juliette Mullen after her father died. She was doing well in her career as a respected manager at a global firm, in charge of a team of HR professionals. But while grieving for her dad, work had also become incredibly busy, with no time for coffee or lunch breaks, or to build positive working relationships. 

“I’d be in the office just struggling to get through the day, but I also had a team to manage and many senior-level stakeholders,” Mullen says. She started having difficulty sleeping and was then even more exhausted at work. Her anxiety levels began to soar, which meant she found it hard to concentrate – and often felt she couldn’t catch her breath.

“I could make high-level, complex decisions at work, but then I’d stand in the supermarket and struggle to remember what I wanted to buy,” she recounts. “I’d lose my keys in my bag several times a day. I’d walk into a room at home and forget what I had gone in there for. I withdrew from family, friends and colleagues, putting everything into work.”

Eventually this took its toll on her marriage and Mullen became a single parent to her young daughter, working into the evenings “just to keep up”. She finally took time off to prioritise her mental wellbeing, and this allowed her to realise she was becoming chronically burned out – and that something had to change.

Unfortunately Mullen is far from alone. In a CV-Library study of more than 2,000 professionals released at the start of this year, four in 10 (42 per cent) UK workers reported feeling on the brink of burnout. Just over two-thirds (68 per cent) said work was the main contributor, citing unrealistic targets (31 per cent), long hours (30 per cent) and increased workloads (30 per cent). Similarly in the US, a survey conducted by Kronos and Future Workplace found 95 per cent of HR leaders felt burnout was undermining workplace retention, citing unreasonable workloads and poor management practices. 

Indicative of its growing prominence, the World Health Organization (WHO) now, as of May 2019, officially recognises burnout as an occupational phenomenon, describing it as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. 

But does this mean burnout is actually on the rise? Or does it merely reflect a growing (some would say middle-class) tendency to identify mental health issues more readily?

The term was in fact first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 in his book, Burnout, where he defined this as the “extinction of motivation or incentive”. Rob Robson, business psychologist for 8Connect Consulting, believes burnout only appears to be on the rise, with this actually down to awareness of mental wellbeing growing among individuals and organisations over recent years. “Burnout has been a topic of research for more than 25 years, but that awareness is driving a greater level of dialogue,” he says.

But while this may be a factor, Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan and author of Cut Your Stress, argues modern workplace practices are causing increased stress levels and burnout. “Long working hours, poor work-life balance, being constantly available by phone or email, tougher targets and worries about job security – these are all factors,” Brewer says. “So you start to feel detached and disengaged from your surroundings, friends or colleagues; you may feel empty, hopeless and helpless.”

Burnout doesn’t stop at the psychological symptoms, she adds. Rather prolonged stress, which leads to burnout, is thought to contribute to reduced immunity, worsening of pre-existing conditions like migraines or diabetes, and erectile dysfunction. 

But Brewer says everyone is different, and what tips someone from stress into burnout depends on the individual. And in fact there have been several over the years keen to make the distinction between high levels of stress and burnout – and between burnout and medically diagnosed mental illness. In his book, Combatting Corporate Burnout, Howard Awbery, managing director of Awbery Management, defines burnout as a complete inability to function, get out of bed or undertake work in any capacity, and warns against confusing everyday stress with this. “In general, stress builds up, leading to anxiety which, in some people, can be accompanied by depression. When prolonged, this can lead to burnout… where there are no resources left to function properly,” Brewer concurs. 

An even more crucial distinction for Robson is that between mental wellbeing – which can be compromised by excessive stress and burnout – and mental illnesses like depression or bipolar disorder. “Mental illness is caused by many things, which are biological in nature,” he says. “Burnout is different because we’re talking about the result of prolonged periods of stress, and it’s something with a clear cause.”

Robson says mental illnesses can be categorised as a chemical imbalance in the brain, while burnout is an “inherently man-made” phenomenon – a crucial distinction for HR professionals, considering that the ‘man made’ cause of excessive work-related stress is squarely their responsibility to address and prevent.  

The fact there are certain sectors and individuals suffering particularly acutely – or rather certain workers who have come under increased and new forms of pressure over recent years – is further evidence of burnout’s man-made nature. Research from Gunnercooke found burnout is prominent in the legal industry, for example, with almost three-quarters of legal professionals (73 per cent) either concerned about or currently suffering from it.

Finance is another potential hotspot. Lloyds Banking Group’s CEO, António Horta-Osório, shared a video at the start of this year detailing how, when the bank was in a “very weak position” following the financial crisis, this led him to lose sleep because of stress and overwork, and then collapse from exhaustion. Horta-Osório explained the experience transformed his approach to the bank’s working culture. “It is really important to combine peak performance for a significant period of time… with moments of rest… when you can regenerate yourself,” he told the BBC. 

While demonstrating the pressures faced by the financial services sector, and particularly its leaders, in recent years, Horta-Osório’s account also shows the crucial role leaders can play in tackling burnout, says Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD. By speaking out, he sent a “powerful message” to change the culture in his organisation, she says, adding: “Leaders have a defining role in encouraging others to speak out and seek support.” 

The health and social care sector is another where burnout is apparently on the rise. A recent survey, published in the BMJ Open journal, found almost a third (31 per cent) of UK doctors may be suffering from high levels of burnout, with A&E doctors and GPs the most susceptible. 

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, says the organisation is developing plans to help teams understand the symptoms, with a focus on prevention and increasing access to mental health services. “It’s about raising awareness of this issue, but also training and preparing managers to deal with it,” he says. “And a large part of it is about trying to create cultures where people can be more open about having a problem.”

Suff agrees supportive cultures go a long way in encouraging people to seek help. But she says the warning signs will have been “building up for a long time” so HR and managers should hopefully spot these. Prevention is ultimately the best cure, she emphasises. “If you have a healthy work culture, good people management skills and support in place to deal with stress, then you’ll hopefully prevent burnout,” she says. “This also means carrying out stress risk assessments. But we find only half of organisations take such a systematic approach and carry these out.” 

Though this sits outside of current definitions of burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, HR professionals must also be mindful of the way employees’ lives outside of work can contribute – as Mullen’s experiences so starkly show. Indeed when a July 2019 BBC report found clinical burnout was the most common reason for Swedes to be off work in 2018, a key factor cited was Swedish employees enjoying some of the most enviable work-life balance globally, and so feeling social pressure to achieve impressive goals outside of work.

Mullen, who now works as an HR and wellbeing consultant, says tackling both this and the work elements of burnout is all about getting to know staff better. “If you know your employees and you know your managers, then you can sense when someone isn’t right,” Mullen says. “It comes back to building relationships; we have to get back to realising we’re dealing with people.”

Are you at risk of burning out?

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?
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