With employees fearing burnout by the age of 32, Tracey Paxton from The Employee Resilience Company has offered practical strategies to combat work-based exhaustion.

A recent poll of 2,000 adults in the UK found that nearly a third have felt like they cannot go on at some point in their career due to being stressed and exhausted. More than half (52 per cent) attributed this to trying to do too much while 58 per cent blamed it on working longer hours.

Not taking annual leave, always being on call and the fear of having to go above and beyond were other contributing factors.

And alarmingly, with the country braced for a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic this winter, 99 per cent of hospital bosses said they were either extremely or moderately concerned about the current level of burnout across the NHS workforce.

“Burnout is often described as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress,” explained Paxton.

“It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

“The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life including your home, work, and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu.

“While not considered a mental illness, burnout can be considered a mental health issue and can have a significant impact on workplaces.”

Burnout, a term first coined by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, can affect both the health and performance of employees at all levels of organisations. It is therefore imperative to recognise signs and symptoms and to implement an effective approach for addressing workplace burnout.

It is important to consider that burnout is not caused solely by stressful work or too many responsibilities. Other factors contribute to burnout, including lifestyle and personality traits. Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it is not the same as too much stress.

“Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring,” said Paxton.

“People experiencing burnout often do not see any hope of positive change in their situations. If excessive stress feels like you are drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up. While you are usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you do not always notice burnout when it happens.”

Burnout is more likely when employees:

  • Expect too much of themselves
  • Never feel the work they are doing is good enough
  • Feel inadequate or incompetent
  • Feel unappreciated for their work efforts
  • Have unreasonable demands placed upon them
  • Are in roles that are not a good job fit.

Some of the signs and symptoms that an employee experiencing burnout may exhibit include:

  • Reduced efficiency and energy
  • Lowered levels of motivation
  • Increased errors
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Increased frustration
  • More time spent working with less being accomplished

Left unaddressed, burnout may result in several outcomes including:

  • Poor physical health
  • Clinical depression
  • Reduced job satisfaction
  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased risk of accidents
  • Poor workplace morale
  • Communication breakdown
  • Increased staff turnover

Strategies to prevent burnout:

  • Provide clear expectations for all employees and obtain confirmation that each employee understands those expectations
  • Make sure employees have the necessary resources and skills to meet expectations
  • Provide ongoing training to employees to maintain competency
  • Help employees understand their value to the organisation and their contributions to the organisation’s goals
  • Enforce reasonable working hours including, if necessary, sending employees home at the end of their regular workday
  • Help assess the workload for those who feel pressured to remain working beyond normal business hours
  • Set reasonable and realistic expectations. Organisations should be clear as to which activities require the highest standards and when it is okay to lower the bar and still meet business needs
  • Encourage social support and respect within and among work teams
  • Support physical activity throughout the working day
  • Strongly encourage the taking of breaks away from the work environment
  • Consider how leadership approaches might impact employees at risk of burnout.

Furthermore, BHSF’s Wellbeing Assessment Tool, one of the bespoke features of the BHSF Connect app, can assist line managers in initiating often difficult conversations with employees and provides an evidenced-based approach to assessing employee wellbeing.