Mental Health UK describes burnout as “a state of physical and emotional exhaustion” and in 2019, it became recognised by the World Health Organisation as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” On the subject of stress, the NHS says “experiencing a lot of stress over a long period of time can lead to a feeling of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, often called burnout.” Symptoms include feeling overwhelmed, being unable to sleep, feeling tired, feeling constantly anxious or worried, eating more or less than usual, and having trouble concentrating (to name just a few).
So, we know burnout is very real, is recognised by health professionals as a condition, and can put significant strain on the person suffering. So, how come so many of us are reaching breaking point, and what can we do to avoid it?
How people get burnout
Some people get naturally more stressed than others, just as some people are more prone to migraines or high cholesterol, but typically there’s a trigger that exacerbates stress and that all-consuming feeling of anxiety.
Most of us are familiar with stress – life has its ups and downs and of course we react to the highs and lows, but burnout is something more. The term, coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the ‘70s, describes the condition perfectly – burnout is where we get to a point that we need a break otherwise we’ll run out of fuel. Similar to some forms of depression, Freudenberger noted that burnout leaves people feeling exhausted but unable to sleep and quick to anger, as well as presenting with physical symptoms such as headaches.
According to Forbes, burnout is increasing with “over half (52%) of survey respondents experiencing burnout in 2021—up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey.” From baby boomers to Gen-Zers, all generations are currently reporting more burnout than they were a few years ago.
“Burnout is not only the result of long hours,” says Forbes. “When you’re not in control of your career or job, can’t figure out a way to succeed—no matter how hard you try—and the tasks assigned to you don’t resonate, you can start feeling burned out.” A challenging job, poor work/life balance, being unable to switch off from work, the threat of losing your job, or not getting a promotion you really want can all also contribute to burnout.
How to avoid it
As with many things mental-health related, talking to someone is often a good way to ease some of the anxiety and worry that can be brought on by burnout. Many companies now offer a lot of support when it comes to managing stress or mental health issues and are giving employees access to people who may be able to help.
Jackie Henry, managing partner for people and purpose at Deloitte UK, says: “wellbeing must become a strategic priority for organisations of every size – not only to support employees experiencing anxiety and stress, but also to prevent people from becoming overwhelmed and overworked in the first place.”
Stopping to breathe
Demanding jobs can leave little time for other things including self-care. Early starts, long days, late finishes, and barely having time to cook dinner before going to bed and starting it all over again soon takes its toll. Dedicating time in the day to stop, breathe, think, walk, exercise, or meditate can be a real game-changer.
Ensuring a good work/life balance
One thing that we’re probably all guilty of is working when we should be doing ‘life stuff.’ Finding the ‘perfect’ balance between work and life is hard but reaching a balance that works and allows time to unwind, see friends and family, catch up on laundry, or go out for a nice meal is vital. Working hard is great, but we need time to play and rest as well.
Don’t take on more than you can handle
It’s ok to say no sometimes, even though it can be difficult. If employees are asked to do something that they know full well they don’t have the capacity to take on, they are well within their rights to say they’re at their workload limit. Employees should feel able to have a discussion around possibly changing up priorities, or potentially dropping one ball in order to juggle with another, but having a heap of work they can’t handle dumped on them will inevitably lead to feeling overwhelmed and, you guessed it, burnt out.
Cost to companies
A recent study shows that “over 10 million workers in the UK have taken sick days due to feeling burnt out, which could potentially cost businesses more than £700m a year,” but figures vary drastically, with Deloitte claiming “poor mental health costs UK employers up to £56 billion a year.” Open Access Government says the cost is closer to £26 billion per annum, but either way, companies are taking a massive financial hit when staff are unable to work due to poor mental health, stress, anxiety, and burnout.
Low productivity and absenteeism
It’s not just staff taking time off that costs companies the big bucks, but also their employee’s inability to focus and concentrate at work, leading to tasks not being completed fully, efficiently or properly. “When in the office, almost half (49%) of workers lose focus at work, indicating that burnout and office stress is holding back employees from being able to perform their daily tasks properly. That’s where the costs to businesses start creeping in – and another compelling reason as to why they must do more to help,” explains an article by Open Access Government. “More than half (57%) of all UK employees feel worn out by work, whilst half a million people in the UK now suffer from work-related stress,” the article goes on to say.
What are companies doing to help?
More and more companies are allowing flexible or remote working which can massively help with work/life balance and general stress. Some businesses are putting more emphasis on wellness and overall health (including mental health) and offer benefits that back up their desire for a healthy and happy workforce. Lots of organisations have relaxation zones in the office, and others offer access to mental health services and counselling. But clearly more needs to be done, especially as burnout figures continue to rise at the rate they are. As a society, we’re getting so much better at talking about mental health, and maybe that conversation also needs to include the impact that burnout can have on individuals and the companies that employ them.