Workplace burnout – why prevention is better than cure

Burnout in work is becoming an epidemic

Burnout is on the rise.

Employees who were under stress before the pandemic often found that their workloads increased during it. With perks like business travel and social gatherings stripped away, the “always on” culture that has been exacerbated by the digital transformation of organisations got worse. 

With people spending their days on video meetings while working from home, they were often unable to separate their work lives from their personal lives. This led to increased levels of stress and anxiety but also caused people to reassess what they were looking for in their work. 

A recent report by Indeed, found that over half of workers experienced burnout in 2021. The American Institute of Stress reports that 83% of workers suffer from work-related illness. The UK Health and Safety Executive says that 17 million days of British workers’ time is lost to stress every year. Meanwhile the World Health Organisation (WHO) places the cost of depression and anxiety to the global economy at $1 trillion annually. Before Covid the WHO declared stress to be the single biggest health epidemic of the 21st Century.

What is burnout and how can you spot it?

Burn-out is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by the WHO as having three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism about work.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy/effectiveness. 

Spotting burnout can help you recognise when things may be getting too much for you or your colleagues. Here are the 12 phases of burnout as identified by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North: 

  1. Excessive drive/ambition and need to prove yourself and your value. 
  2. Pushing yourself to work harder/being a workaholic. 
  3. Neglecting your own needs (including self-care like sleep, exercise, socialising and eating well).
  4. Displacement of conflict (blaming others for pushing yourself too hard or you feeling stressed).
  5. Revision of Values – family and friends seem less important. 
  6. Denial – you get impatient/intolerant and blame others. 
  7. Withdrawal – avoiding social interaction. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. 
  8. Behavioural changes – including being snappy and aggressive. 
  9. Depersonalization – feeling detached and questioning your value.  
  10. Inner emptiness –  feeling empty. Turning to external gratification through overeating, sex, alcohol or drugs. 
  11. Depression. Feeling lost, fearing the future. 
  12. Burnout syndrome. Mental or physical collapse requiring medical attention. 

Preventing burnout 

We set up Wading Herons to make work more human and balanced. Having come from big organisations and seen a real need for happier, less stressed and more effective workplaces, we’re helping organisations to imagine better ways of working. We’re pulling together ideas from outside the typical corporate playbook to introduce new perspectives. I’ve experienced burnout myself and seen it impact colleagues, friends and loved ones. As a dad I didn’t want my son to have to put up with the same stress and outdated ways of working. 

Modern businesses know that the 9-5 and a daily commute is now a thing of the past. To keep the best talent, companies are essentially having to invert the old model where employees might work from home one day a week. They’re having to get really creative about how to engage teams and build loyalty and engagement. Days in the office need to be worth it – and more human experiences than they often were previously – to ensure people feel valued and listened to. 

Such a radical change isn’t easy and organisations are having to rapidly reassess how they relate to their people. The tyranny of the office has been overturned and we know that our people can be trusted. Great Place to Work surveyed 800,000 employees and found stable or increased productivity after employees started working from home.

Unplugging and time for self-care and fun is absolutely vital to ensure employees get the right balance at work. Time to switch off is essential if we want creative, innovative and happy individuals and teams. In a world where machines are increasingly replacing humans at work, humans need to use all of our unique strengths that technology can’t replicate! 

Three Practical Steps you can take at work: 

  1. Build in time for self-care during the working-week. Take time to eat properly and step away from your computer regularly. Get some fresh air!
  2. Digital Switch off. Make sure you’re not checking your emails and your phone after working hours or at the weekends (unless something really is an emergency!)
  3. Share with a friend. Find a colleague, friend or loved one who you can check in with regularly to support each other, share problems and how you’re feeling.

We’d love you to join us on our mission to make business more authentically human!

We admire you for considering this important space, it can be very daunting. We will share pioneering knowledge and tools uniquely placed to help you see fresh perspectives, experience new thinking and address your most complex culture challenges.

Let’s do this together!

Murray Brown & Micael Johnstone

Wading Herons co-founders

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