Workplace Burnout – “An Occupational Phenomenon”

July 15th, 2021

Prior to lockdown employers believed that an employee’s productivity would reduce when working from home, however, this has not been the case. In fact, employees are reporting that they are working longer hours – starting earlier and working later – and there is an expectation to be available at all hours, which has led to a rise in workplace burnout.

Research by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation showed that 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease due to working long hours. That is quite a staggering number when (although I am not sure in every case) the death could have been preventable if a more manageable workload had been in place.

Last month the WHO updated its definition for “workplace burnout”. It is now defined in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increase mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

For some, long work hours are expected – the reasoning usually given is “it’s the nature of the job” but employees are not carbon copies of one another, and each will have their own limits (both physically and mentally). Especially if they are dealing with other conditions such as anxiety, PTSD, or depression. Where does the responsibility sit to say “stop” – at the door of the employee or at the door of the employer? This is a complex question and will depend on a number of circumstances including whether the individual has a disability.

According to its website, the WHO are developing guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace (it will be interesting to see their recommendations). In the meantime, what steps can employers take to manage stress at work and reduce workplace burnout?

Bumble, the online dating app, was recently reported to give their staff a week’s paid leave following a really busy period for the business to combat burnout in the workplace. Other larger companies have also been reported to give additional paid holidays during lockdown for their staff to take care of their mental health.

Not all employers can be as generous, so what else could they do?

  • keep a look out for the behaviours orsigns identified in the definition above;
  • speak to their employees to understand how they are feeling and how they can support them (especially if an employee has a period of absence due to stress at work);
  • carry out a risk assessment;
  • offer holiday or time away from the office.

Staff are an investment to a business. It takes time and money to train them and so it would seem sensible to do what you can (if you can) to care for them and retain them.

I think flexible working is the answer (if the job allows) but it has to be in the true sense of the word. The majority of staff are aware their responsibilities and what is required, and lockdown has shown that staff can be trusted. Perhaps if employees are allowed to find a work pattern that works for them, this will result in more productivity, less stress for the employer and employee, and a healthier workforce.

This blog was written by Joanne Sinclair, Trainee Solicitor at didlaw.

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