Being aware of the dangers of burnout

Employees and management, especially those that have worked throughout the coronavirus pandemic, may be suffering from the adverse effects of burnout.

The term ‘burnout’ has become more prevalent in recent times as organisations struggle to manage the impact increasing workplace demands have on employees’ mental health. This has only become more apparent during 2020, when many employees may have faced increased workloads, uncertainty and general pressure due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

In recognition of the potentially debilitating effects of burnout, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included the term in the eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), meaning as of 2020 it is a globally recognised international condition. According to the WHO, common symptoms of burnout include:

  • feelings of energy depletion or mental exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job
  • feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced professional efficacy.

A key aspect of the WHO’s definition is that burnout only relates to work related stress, which should encourage organisations to be alert to any early warning signs. One of the key stumbling blocks is that burnout, and by association work-related stress, can be viewed as ‘part of the job’ in many industries, or a necessity due to the challenges posed by the pandemic, and this is where a step change is required.

To counteract this, organisations should avoid creating a situation where staff are pressured into working long hours or taking work home with them. Rest breaks and annual leave are vital tools in preventing mental ill health at work and presenteeism should be discouraged at all times. Calls to introduce mental health first aiders continue to grow as MPs and activists encourage organisations to do more in helping promote good mental health.  In the same way, the use of wellness action plans and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can also encourage greater discussion and identify any workplace factors that have a negative impact on mental health.

Failing to properly prevent and address burnout could lead to staff becoming disillusioned, unproductive and, potentially, seeking employment elsewhere. It could also ultimately result in claims of disability discrimination, if an individual is able to show that their condition has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Therefore, organisations are reminded once again to ensure the appropriate framework is in place to avoid potentially costly tribunal proceedings. 

As we head into the winter months and face the potential for a second wave of coronavirus cases, it will be all the more vital that organisations take steps to manage staff mental health. Whilst we face a great deal of uncertainty at the moment, what is clear is that this pandemic is not over yet, and how organisations treat their staff now is likely to be remembered later.

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