Dr Doug Wright looks at how to spot the signs of burn-out and what you and your employees can do to prevent it.
Working environments are very different at the moment, with so few staff working in their normal workplaces and many now working from home. It’s not as easy for employers and colleagues to keep an eye out for any signs that someone might be suffering from burn-out.
Flexible working can be a great thing, but it may also encourage employees to be ‘always on’, which isn’t healthy. With laptops, tablets and mobile phones being key tools and constantly available, some employees may feel pressure to be checking them and working at all hours of the day. And with most socialising also currently moving online, there’s a danger of employees becoming digital addicts.
But it’s possible to look out for the signs from a distance. And with working from home looking like a long-term possibility for many people at the moment, it’s more important than ever for you to know the signs and to step in when you spot them.
What is burn-out?
Burn-out is a psychological, physical and emotional state people can find themselves in when they’ve been dealing with poorly managed stress for a long time. It has three characteristics:
- Feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion
- An increased mental distance from, negativity or cynicism about one’s job
- Reduced professional effectiveness
Burn-out is becoming increasingly common in the workplace 1. In 2019, the World Health Organisation added burn-out to their international classification of diseases as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ rather than a medical condition.
While short-term pressure can be good for us, employees faced with a prolonged period of stress risk being exhausted, unmotivated and ineffective. And this can have a knock-on effect across your whole workforce.
The seven signs of burn-out
With burn-out a real possibility, you and your managers should be looking out for these seven signs in your employees:
- Working longer hours
- Too many priorities
- Lack of participation
- Negative attitude
- Making mistakes
- Difficulty concentrating
While some signs of burn-out are obvious, sometimes an employee won’t recognise they’re slipping into that situation. In these cases, it’s important their line manager has the training and awareness to notice the situation and step in to give the right support at the right time.
What can you and your managers do to prevent burn-out?
- Encourage an open and honest workplace culture – it will help you and your employees engage with each other in a more positive way
- Put specific HR policies in place – make sure you manage workloads to a sustainable level and your employees have enough time to relax and recuperate after a busy, stressful day at work
- Notice changes in working patterns – keep an eye on whether team members are sending emails outside work hours
- Be aware of workloads and deadlines for team members – make sure workloads are manageable and notice when employees are asking for help with their work
- Notice behaviour changes – be aware of mood swings, energy levels and how employees are interacting with other team members
- Work to prevent overload – if you’ve had to furlough some staff, think about what you can do to make sure you don’t overload the remaining team members
- Balanced work allocation – make sure you allocate work proportionately
- Think about giving back time – if an employee has had a significant workload for a period of time, try to give them back some time with leave or by working fewer hours
- Signpost to support – make sure your employees know where to find support from your wellbeing programme
- Practice what you preach – as a leader, you need to model the behaviour you want your employees to follow, so don’t be the one working at all hours and expecting responses out of office hours
- Look after your own wellbeing – following on from practicing what you preach, if you remember to look after your own wellbeing, your team members are likely to follow your example
Burn-out tips for employees
Of course, it’s not all one-sided. Your employees can take steps to look after their own wellbeing and prevent burn-out too. Here are nine top tips for you to share with your employees:
- Be conscious of your working pattern – notice if it changes, if you’re working longer or not taking breaks
- Talk to your manager – let them know if you feel unable to cope with or keep up your workload
- Talk to your colleagues – don’t be afraid to ask for a helping hand if you need it
- Take back time – if you’ve worked beyond your normal working hours, think about how you can take some of that time back for yourself
- Take note of your moods – recognise changes to your mood and behaviour
- Do something to help you switch off – do an activity you have to focus your attention on, for example, cooking, exercising, reading, drawing, making something
- Use the wellbeing support available to you – check what your employer offers to help you manage your stress levels
- Take your own advice – think about what you would say to someone else in your position and act on that advice
- Take time away – your mind and body can’t run on full power all the time, so being able to rest and recharge is one of the best ways to prevent burn-out, including getting good quality sleep
Doug Wright, Medical Director, UK Health and Protection, has over 30 years’ experience in healthcare. His past roles include being a practising doctor in hospitals and as a GP and now he leads the clinical team at Aviva.