The World Health Organisation (WHO) formally recognised ‘burnout’ at work as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in May this year which demonstrates that this is an issue we all need to pay more attention to. Recent research has shown that 23 per cent of full-time workers in the UK are frequently operating in ‘burnout mode’ in the workplace. With reports of ‘leavism’ – employees unable to switch-off workplace pressures when on annual leave – what can employers do to support staff that may be at risk of burnout this summer?
What is ‘summer burnout’?
Although many of us look forward to longer days and warmer weather, the summer period is not always a quiet time for businesses. ‘Summer burnout’ can arise from a sustained period of workplace stress which can result from a number of factors during this season.
For example, teams may find themselves short-staffed as people go on annual leave and other employees have to pick up more work. A recent analysis by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) revealed that more than five million UK workers put in a total of two billion unpaid hours in 2018. Over the school holidays, busy parents and carers may also be juggling increased childcare commitments and in the hotter weather many people can find themselves with a more demanding social schedule too. Combine these elements with potential poorer sleep due to the humidity or early sunrises, and employees are likely to feel drained and potentially at risk of experiencing mental ill health.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
Employees experiencing burnout are likely to feel depleted of energy and exhausted from coping with an increased workload for an extended period of time. It can result in reduced productivity or negative feelings towards one’s job.
It is not always easy to spot the signs of burnout or the start of a mental health issue but it is important that managers strive to understand the signs and symptoms. This could be, for example, a lack of care over personal appearance, frequent minor illness, sudden weight loss or weight gain, irritability, withdrawing from social interaction, or working too many hours but still not meeting deadlines or being productive – being the first in and the last to leave. It can also include employees who are unable to step away from their inbox whilst on holiday, constantly checking and responding to emails, or who are unable to delegate tasks to colleagues when they are on annual leave.
Other key symptoms of burnout include a decline in the relationships between team members, particularly with managers. When employees are feeling physically and emotionally drained they are likely to experience reduced professional efficacy which can impact on the whole team.
Is burnout a summer phenomenon?
But is the season really to blame for employees feeling burnout, or is this a more deeply rooted issue in the workplace that many people feel throughout the year? At any given time, one in six working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health and for 72 million working days are lost to it each year.
Employers need a year-round approach to wellbeing which starts at the top. When openness and attitude comes from the board level and is lived through interactions with leaders and managers at all levels, it sets an example to the whole company that it is ok to talk about mental health. All organisations should have a mental health and wellbeing strategy in line with the Government’s Thriving at Work recommendations. This approach should include measures for the prevention of workplace mental ill health, early intervention plans, and support.
How can we tackle burnout in the workplace?
The good news is there are a number steps that organisations can follow to help employees build resilience against burnout and support those who are feeling drained or struggling with their mental ill health, this summer and beyond.
Tip 1 – Encourage employees to eat well and get moving
Our physical and mental health is connected so when we eat well and exercise more it helps boost our mental wellbeing. When we feel burnout and exhaustion it can be tempting to indulge in coffees and unhealthy snacks. But overdoing it on sugar, caffeine or alcohol over the summer months can increase their stress in the long run.
Consider the ways your organisation could encourage employees to move more and eat healthier – perhaps you could provide healthy snacks like fruit and granola bars in the office, or start a trend of power walk meetings and catch ups.
Tip 2- Try a weekly wellbeing check up
It is important that employees are able to monitor their own mental health. This way they can understand when changes are happening that can indicate something is not quite right, so they can address the issue in good time. When we ‘check-in’ on ourselves regularly we are more likely to notice rising stress levels or exhaustion. This enables us to take action and be kinder to ourselves, and change some of our habits or reach out for support – before the burnout hits.
One way to do this is through a weekly wellbeing check-up. There are some key questions people can ask themselves on a regular basis:
- Where’s my mental health today – how do I feel physically and mentally?
- Am I drinking enough water and eating a balanced diet?
- How did I sleep last night – did I feel rested when I woke up?
- Am I using helpful coping strategies for my stress – are they working?
It is important to speak to someone if you do recognise unhelpful thoughts, for free resources on spotting and challenging such thinking, visit the NHS Apps Library or getselfhelp.co.uk. Samaritans are available to speak to around the clock on 116 123.
Tip 3- Encourage people to have ‘real’ downtime
All employers should take active steps to encourage employees to set aside some regular quality downtime where they are not distracted by their work. CIPD research shows almost a quarter (23 per cent) of workers in the UK struggle to book time off. Those that do can often suffer from ‘leavism’. This means employees are unable to tune-out and still regularly check emails, fail to delegate tasks and accumulate work for their return, or cancel their annual leave last minute all together.
It is vital to find time to switch-off outside of working hours. The more we are able to set work aside and pay attention to our senses – what we see, hear or feel around us – the easier it becomes to connect with the present moment and take steps to try and improve our wellbeing. When we foster positive emotions and relaxation, it enables us to develop a buffer against stress. Meditation and mindfulness can be great methods for helping with this.
Could your organisation close early on a Friday through August, do more to encourage people to get out on their lunch-breaks, or give people an extra summer day? Could you review the email policy by setting a moratorium on emails out-of-hours including email footers that outline flexible working patters.