Mental health | Why employers need to be alert to burnout

Why employers need to be alert to burnout

By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development and Marketing, Generali UK Employee Benefits

At a time when three quarters (75%) of HR leaders think the risk of employee burnout is increased potentially as a result of a new culture of “e-presenteeism” brought about by mass homeworking during the Covid-19 pandemic, Partner at law firm BLM Vanessa Latham says it would be wise for employers to be alert to the signs of burnout and take preventative, supportive - and ideally individually tailored - action where required.

HR Grapevine recently reported on researchi findings commissioned by LinkedIn in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, which found that three in five (58%) HR leaders think long-term homeworking may have unearthed a culture of ‘e-presenteeism’, whereby workers feel obliged to be online as much as possible, even outside of work hours, and when they are feeling unwell.

The survey as a whole, which also included employee respondents, showed that individuals are working an average of 28 hours a month more since being required to work from home due to lockdown. It should be noted that the survey was taken early on and at the height of the uncertainty due to Covid-19.

Burnout & case law

Burnout was added last year by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to the international classification of diseases. It’s an occupational phenomenon, which results from workplace stress that hasn’t been managed effectively.

While Latham doesn’t expect the new classification of burnout to significantly change how employment law related cases are decided, because it’s not classified as a medical condition as such, she says that claimants might argue that the signs of burnout were obvious to the employer. This, in turn, triggers an obligation on the employer to take steps to prevent injury occurring.

“That remains to be seen and as defendants we will argue that it [burnout per se] is not sufficient. In negligence claims, claimants are required to prove psychiatric illness – so proving burnout will not be sufficient for the claim to be successful.

“However, it would be wise for employers to be alert to the issues associated with burnout and take supportive action if they see the signs.”

Why here? Why now?

In a pre Covid-19 world, the majority of us reported experiencing symptoms of fatigue and burnout at some point in our lives. It’s the persistency of these symptoms that determines their manageability.

Right now, in the middle of a pandemic when many more people are experiencing varying levels of stress, there’s an increased risk of persistent fatigue and burnout for everyone. The key is for individuals and employers to take preventative measures at an early stage.

Those most at risk fall into one of two camps. Firstly, those who develop Covid-19 may experience post viral chronic fatigue syndrome, if the experience of SARS survivors is anything to go by that is.

Research shows that 40% of those who survived SARS experienced chronic symptoms of fatigue. And 40% experienced psychiatric illness. The severity of the symptoms determines the chronic fatigue. So, those admitted to hospital or in bed for 2 weeks+ are particularly at risk of developing persistent symptoms of fatigue, says Emily Tims, Specialist Physiotherapist at Vitality360, one of Generali UK’s early intervention specialists, speaking as part of a recent webinar hosted in partnership with Generali UK.ii

Secondly, Covid-19 represents a significant cause of stress to most of the population, adds Tims. “A stressful period can trigger burnout or other conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome. Those more at risk include: people with school age children; anyone living with - or apart from - a vulnerable person; those with a close friend or family member admitted to hospital; anyone living on their own; anyone with significant financial concerns.”

What should individuals watch out for?

According to Vitality360, employees should be alerted to the warning signs to watch out for, which include:

  • Persistent pain.

  • Increased use of pain relief.

  • Full bucket metaphor.

  • Gut issues.

  • Sleep problems.

  • Shame, guilt, secrecy & denial.

  • Tired and wired.

  • Endless ‘to-doing’.

  • Desire to ‘stop the planet, I want to get off’.

What should employers watch out for?

A Gallup report from 2018 found that employees with enough time to do their work and who felt supported by their line managers were 70% less likely to suffer high burnout. It found the following main causes of burnout: 

  • Unreasonable time pressure.

  • Lack of communication & support from managers.

  • Lack of role clarity.

  • Unmanageable workload.

  • Unfair treatment at work. 

How do individuals prevent burnout & fatigue?

We all have three emotional regulation systems: threat; drive; and soothing, says Tims. “Although we need them all, we also need to be able to recognise when we’re spending too long in one of them. With burnout, we get stuck in either the threat or drive system.”

The following are required to help activate the soothing system:

  • Ensure good sleep habits: have a wind-down routine before bed; dark room; no evening caffeine, alcohol or exercise; minimise technology in the evening; minimise naps and lie-ins.

  • Balance rest and activity: identify your triggers – such as pushing ahead with work when you might be too tired – and set yourself ground rules; implement new routines that include effective rest, such as a 5-minute break every hour; ensure time for something completely different to work – anything from meditation and relaxation to listening to music or going for a walk.

  • Include physical activity: boosts mood; improves sleep, concentration, wellbeing, immune system, disease risk. Make a plan to ensure it’s easy to fit in to life and keep it consistent. UK physical activity guidelines were updated by the Department of Health and Social Care last year and as well as the usual 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise, there’s now more emphasis on strength training as part of the weekly routine, along with breaking up periods of inactivity.

How do employers prevent burnout & fatigue?

Employers have statutory obligations under the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974) – a duty of care for employee wellbeing, including mental health. This involves: minimising risk such as workload, role and expectations; identifying issues by monitoring absenteeism and presenteeism, also using the HSE risk assessment tool and management standards indicator tool.

Where areas of risk are identified, preventative strategies can be put in place by embedding a culture of wellbeing. This should include a focus on the following:

  • Achievable workload / targets.

  • Managing performance and ensuring a culture of disclosure so any problems are identified and adjustments can be made.

  • Managers leading by example – right now, this could include not muting the children while they are on video calls and making it clear when they are and aren’t available.

  • Managers given appropriate support and training.

  • Encourage employees to take breaks away from the desk.

  • Factor in physical activity – such as lunch time walks.

  • Encourage employees to switch off outside of work – make it clear to people when they are and aren’t expected to reply to emails.

  • Implement flexible working.

Find out more about Generali


iThe poll, commissioned by LinkedIn in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation, was carried out in late April and included 2,000 UK adult workers working from home due to Coronavirus, plus HR respondents (number not specified). The findings, which focused on changes in mental health since lockdown began on 23rd March, were first published on 5th May and a full report is anticipated during Mental Health Awareness Week. In the meantime, here’s the official blog:

iiThis article was written following a recent webinar on fatigue and burnout hosted by Generali UK in partnership with their wellbeing partner Vitality360, a team of multidisciplinary professionals, specialising in rehabilitation for people with persistent physical symptoms, such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. To watch a recording of the webinar, go here.

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