How to extinguish employee burnout

Burnout levels among professionals are spiralling. What can be done to beat back the flames?

Burnout is on the rise. Granted, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. But when you factor in the small matter of a global pandemic and the impact of working from home (WFH) on our ability to switch off, it’s little wonder that professionals are mentally exhausted like never before.

Employment review specialist Glassdoor has reported a 128% jump in references to “burnout” in company feedback shared since April 2021. Reviews relating to the professional sector – including technology, business services and finance – have seen the highest usage of the term, accounting for 40% of all reviews this year that reference burnout. 

“Many employees have been able to ‘grin and bear’ the impact of Covid-19 through 2020, but the one-year anniversary has proven to be a tipping point,” says Jill Cotton, careers advice expert at Glassdoor. “They’re thinking again about their home and work lives, and we’re seeing UK job vacancies reach a record high due to the ‘Great Resignation’.”

Covid-19 aside, a combination of over-work and under-rest is still playing its part.

“There’s a grave danger in the glamourisation of overworking,” says Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director of HR Independents (HRi) and chief people officer for Amelore. “Forgoing lunch breaks and weekends in favour of work is portrayed as a sign of passion, and chaining oneself to a desk until the early hours is seen as commitment. Wearing burnout as a badge of honour is as dangerous for the individual as it is for the company.”

Burnout and businesses

According to UK Health and Safety Executive research published in November 2020, 828,000 workers were affected by work-related stress, depression or anxiety between 2019 and 2020, with 17.9 million working days lost as a result. 

In short, burnout is as damaging to businesses as it is to the staff affected, with UK employers footing a collective bill worth billions each year as a result. 

Robert Ordever is MD at workplace culture specialist O.C. Tanner Europe. Recent research from the organisation found the pandemic has contributed to a 15% global rise in burnout, increasing to a jaw-dropping 81% in “non-thriving” company cultures.

“Frankly, even if it wasn’t the right thing to do, finding ways to prevent burnout is imperative to running a thriving business,” says Ordever, noting that his company’s 2020 Global Culture Report found that even mild burnout causes a 220% decrease in the probability of highly engaged employees and a 247% decrease in the probability of great work. 

A Mental Health UK study found that just 23% of workers are aware of the support their organisation offers to tackle burnout. It’s vital that staff know they have your backing. 

At O.C. Tanner, it’s an open conversation. “We focus on education and maintaining awareness of the risk of burnout,” says Ordever. “The foundation of our strategy is around our people and we articulate this by asking each of them to ‘watch out, speak up and work safely’. We each take collective responsibility for the wellbeing of ourselves and each other.”

An upfront approach is vital, agrees Cornish. “Talking about the concept of burnout, how it presents itself in both team members and C-suite, and agreeing on support for staff is crucial.”

Warning signs

While symptoms vary from person to person, common signs of burnout include weariness, a negative outlook and procrastination. In 2019 it was recognised by the WHO as an “occupational phenomenon”. 

Dominic McGregor found himself burnt out in summer 2015, having given his all to Social Chain, the digital startup he co-founded, an exciting “rocketship” that experienced “crazy-fast growth”. 

McGregor only realised he was burnt out when somebody else pointed it out to him. “Everything was getting on top of me but I didn’t even notice,” he recalls. “It crept up on me. To recover, I had to either stop working or stop partying – and I wouldn’t stop working. I quit the party lifestyle and focused my spare time on rest.”

McGregor recently launched his latest venture, Fearless Adventures, which invests in entrepreneur-led ecommerce businesses. “My co-founders and I are implementing a number of things to prevent burnout, from a completely transparent structure to encouraging regular breaks and holidays,” he says. “We want to give our team the confidence to switch off, rest and re-energise.” 

McGregor believes it’s crucial for senior management to look out for staff and ensure that they’re not “flaming out”, adding: “They should care about their team’s mental health and show that their wellbeing is as important as their performance.”

One flame at a time

If it becomes apparent that a member of your team has burnout, assess what can be done to help them. 

“Remove any unnecessary causes of stress,” suggests Cornish. “Redistribute workloads where necessary and encourage the individual to make use of annual leave. If need be, investigate and resolve any contributory factors, such as bullying or harassment. Provide access to medical support, such as an Employee Assistance Programme.”

Swapping a workaholic culture for one that values rest and recharging can help keep the burnout risk under control. Remind staff to step away from their desks throughout the day, for example, even if just for a five-minute stroll; regular breaks are proven to reduce the risk of stress and depression, as well as improving everything from productivity to focus.

Similarly, it’s critical to set boundaries. Encourage staff to make the most of leave. Turn off the ping of email notifications and other forms of out-of-hours contact to help create a distinct separation between work life and home life, even if they’re still WFH. 

“The most important thing we do to prevent burnout at O.C. Tanner is set clear expectations,” says Ordever. “We work hard to ensure that extended hours, excessive workloads and sustained pressures are simply not the norm.”