Be honest…do you ever dread going to work? Do work worries hang over you all weekend to the point where you can’t relax or enjoy yourself?
We all feel stress from time to time. But if you feel like that all day, every day, to the point of exhaustion then the problem isn’t just stress. It’s occupational burnout, something that’s just been recognised as a legitimate medical diagnosis by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
HR would act fast to fix something that causes physical injury to employees, but what about their mental health? That has a physical impact, too. And stress can be contagious. It’s time to take a closer look at the causes of burnout and how HR can help save people from its grip.
What is burnout and how do you recognise it?
Burnout is chronic exhaustion caused by long-term workplace stress that has not been managed successfully. Its symptoms are:
1. Feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion.
2. Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativity and/or cynicism related to working life.
3. Reduced professional effectiveness.
This is not only bad for an individual suffering in their job, but for organisations too. It could mean a reduction in productivity, an increase in absences and talented people resigning. On a deeper level, burnout should raise alarm bells about the culture of your organisation. Any illness that’s caused by work needs a workplace solution.
Is your profession more susceptible to burnout?
Some professions have more high-pressure situations and longer hours than others. Law is a classic example. The pressure from clients and the emotional impact that cases can carry, combined with unpredictable hours and the sheer volume of work is enough in itself.
But surrounding that is the culture that pervades the working environment.
A recent study of junior lawyers has shown worrying results about their anxiety levels . But the points they raise could apply to people of any age in many (if not most) workplaces.
Competitive colleagues and high expectations can make people feel like they are constantly on trial to prove their abilities. We’ve all struggled at times to appear in control when deep-down we feel helpless, perhaps wondering if we’re ‘tough enough’ to hack it. When work takes up so much time in our lives, it can be impossible to stop these feelings seeping into our very sense of who we are. The struggle is exhausting.
Bad relationships can breed a burnout culture
Technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to our personal and professional wellbeing. The speed, convenience and sheer ease of communication that it brings is hugely empowering. For workers who aren’t desk-based, or who need more flexible options, mobile technology is vital.
On the other hand, 24/7 access to work emails and other systems can make it impossible to switch off mentally. When you’re waiting for a stressful situation to be resolved, it’s easy to keep checking that inbox. But are you really just adding to your anxiety? It’s clear our relationships with technology need to change so we can embrace its ability to reduce work pressure, rather than letting it hold us hostage.
Access to fast and easy communication doesn’t always mean that our relationships with each other are healthy. Workplace culture is mostly dictated from the top down, so managers must be sensitive to how their behaviour can influence others negatively. Research by Mind shows that less than half of people with a mental health condition had told their manager . At the same time, many managers are not trained to identify when people are struggling or know how to reach out when they do.
The answer is to create a culture where people feel comfortable talking about their wellbeing in the workplace without fear of judgement. And where everyone knows how best to reach out to people who are showing signs of stress – before it spirals into burnout.
What can HR teams do to help fight burnout?
HR teams are in the ideal position to take a lead on tackling burnout. Here are 5 things you can do to help reduce stress in the workplace:
- Create a wellbeing charter – A formal document that states your organisation’s standards and expectations for wellbeing shows a real commitment to your people’s happiness. It can guide training and development goals, and make sure that employee wellbeing is considered during times of organisational change.
- Check in regularly with your team – Regular 1-2-1 check ins with the people you manage can give them a ‘safe space’ to talk about anything that’s on their mind. It’ll also make it more likely that you’ll spot changes in their demeanour. 1-2-1s can be run online for remote employees, to avoid feelings of isolation.
- Train people to identify stress and offer support – It’s not only crucial for people to notice signs of stress in others, but also for people to diagnose stress in themselves. The earlier it’s acted on, the better. Regular training on wellbeing should be mandatory for all staff, starting with their onboarding process.
- Survey your employees for ideas and feedback – You’ll get a sense of what it’s really like at ground level if you can regularly survey the mood and opinions of the workforce.
- Encourage people to use their annual leave – When people are under pressure, they can sometimes feel guilty about taking time off work. Reminding people to use their full annual leave entitlement shows you appreciate they have a life outside of work.
It’s time to change the way we think about workplace stress
In an ideal world, our working lives would be stress free and we’d switch off as soon as we got home. But human nature just isn’t like that, and it’s perfectly normal to worry about work just as we do with any other aspect of our lives. But that doesn’t mean stress should be normalised into your working culture. Burnout is both a mental health and a physical problem, and it shows how our entire wellbeing can dependent on a positive work environment.
Organisations have a duty to provide this, or risk becoming the type of employer that nobody wants to work for. Healthy employees mean a healthier bottom line – so act now to make burnout one less thing to worry about!
If you want to talk to your employees about mental health but don’t know how to start the conversation, see our advice on how to reach out.
Legal professionals can find help and support for their wellbeing at LawCare, a free and impartial service.
How to discuss employee mental health