Dating app business Bumble made the news in recent months by closing down their business for a week to help ‘burnt-out staff’ by giving them a week’s break to focus on themselves. They received widespread approval for their caring nature and employee focus, but it’s rare that businesses can afford to shut down for a week, and for some businesses, it’s simply not a possibility if they want to survive. The phrase ‘burnout’ is often used alongside ‘overwhelm’, but the two are quite different.
What is ‘overwhelm’?
Feeling ‘overwhelm’ due to mounting workloads can show up in a number of ways. Generally, it shows in an apparent lack of success at work, such as missing deadlines or meetings, or failing to return phone calls or emails. All of this then adds up to a feeling of continuously having to ‘catch up’ and it turns into a cycle. It’s only by addressing why the workload is so overwhelming that ‘overwhelm’ can be tackled – is it sheer volume? Additional tasks? Lack of training, experience, or tools?
The effects of ‘overwhelm’ carry over outside of work as well, as people get more impatient about situations beyond their control such as queues or wifi outages, getting irritable with friends and family, and a feeling of not being able to keep up with home life as much as work life. Everyday chores such as laundry or mowing the lawn add up to just another thing on a growing pile.
Overwhelm, continued unchecked, will potentially lead to burnout, which is a more physical condition, as well as emotional and behavioural.
What is ‘burnout’?
The World Health Organisation defined ‘Burnout’ in 2019 as an “occupational phenomenon”. Like a cold or flu, burnout doesn’t hit all at once but instead slowly accumulates. Often, an excessive drive or ambition pushes people to work more and work harder until they literally, burn out.
Physically, they feel tired and drained, often have headaches and/or muscle ache, changes in appetite and sleep, they are more likely to get ill due to a compromised immune system. This is alongside the emotional and behavioural effects, which include feelings of helplessness, failure, and self-doubt, lack of motivation and missing work or other responsibilities, withdrawing from the world and becoming increasingly isolated, using food or substances to cope, and taking frustrations out of those around them. It can affect every aspect of their everyday life and become debilitating.
Some personality types are more predisposed, such as those that prefer to be in control and perfectionists. However, an excessive drive or ambition can come from external factors. This might include influences in the home or family, but more frequently can come from work.
How the pandemic has built on burnout.
Mental ill-health remains the most common cause of long-term absence from work, while stress, depression or anxiety are responsible for 54% of lost working days every year. There are those that thought the increase in home working might alleviate that somewhat, by reducing the commute and workplace stress. However, people that moved to home working as a result of COVID19 and have stayed there through choice or need have experienced negative impacts as well as positive.
In addition to feeling less connected to colleagues, people are also reporting taking less exercise, getting less sleep and developing musculoskeletal issues.
Even more worrying is the length of the workday. The UK, alongside the US, Canada, and Austria, has seen people add a scary 2.5 hours to their working day, as they struggle to define home and work time.
Questions to ask yourself.
Managers and business owners should work with employees to avoid burnout at every opportunity. Your team’s mental health might not feel like an integral part of your job, but if your employees start dropping with stress-related burnout, this then puts pressure on the rest of the team who in turn then suffer with the same problem. Essentially, it then turns into a companywide issue that impacts productivity, loses clients, and even closes you down.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How often do you talk to your team members about business aims, progress and plans for the future?
- Do you think your employees know their clear and realistic expectations and targets?
- How do you react when you’re told something cannot be done in an ideal timescale?
- Do you send emails, texts or messages out of the set ‘office hours.’
- Does your team always take breaks and lunchbreaks?
- Do you think your team seem happy?
Use honest answers to these questions to guide you in taking steps to avoid burnout for employees, to ensure a happier and more productive workforce, and reduce staff absenteeism through stress-related issues.
Communicate with your employees.
We have just come through a vast period of uncertainty where many aspects of life we had always taken for granted changed, and situations usually only seen in apocalyptic films came to life. Your employees will be more unsure of life than ever before, insecurity and uncertainty will only add to stress.
Be honest – how is the business doing and what can be done to help the business survive and grow? What are the future plans, including getting back to the ‘new normal.’ Of working adults currently working from home, 85% want to use a hybrid approach to working with a mix of home and office working on ‘return to work’, however, 32% of businesses state they’re not sure what proportion of the workforce will be returning to their usual place of work.
Making a decision on this – if you haven’t already – and communicating this to the team will give certainty. In an ideal world you’ll bring your employees into the decision-making process to find a solution that meets everyone’s needs.
Set clear roles and targets.
Most job descriptions include ‘any other duties as required’ in some way, shape, or form. Having said that, you might not realise that one team member has ended up taking on ordering all the office supplies and is getting continual emails about lack of stationery and complaints about coffee brands, or that another team member is having to carry out HR tasks they have no experience in because there is currently no one in that role and you aren’t able to make the time.
Get your employees to make a list of everything they do, and everything that stops them from completing their role including everything they end up doing outside their job role. Use that information to make sure that everyone knows what their role is, spread the load, provide any training needed, and set realistic targets. It could be that given additional tasks in a role, existing targets are not appropriate and are driving your employee into the ground.
Would people rather work through the night than say that they’re going to miss a deadline? That’s a recipe for burnout. Don’t make them dread telling you. Regularly ask if projects are on track and be approachable if deadlines need reassessment.
Lead by example in setting boundaries
If you’re sending emails at 9pm at night or on a Sunday morning, you might be sending them with a view to your employee looking at it when they’re next due to work. However, your employee might see it as a cue as you what you think they should be doing which will prevent them from having any break at all.
If you want to write emails ready for Monday, save them in your outbox to send during working hours. Discourage them from having work emails on their private phone under the guise of security, but in reality, it’s a practical way of keeping them from thinking about work out of hours.
Remind people that they should be taking breaks and lunches. Make sure you take a lunch and break as well to avoid creating a ‘work through lunch’ mentality within the business. You’ll also be less likely to burn out too!
Burnout – a long-term problem that needs a long-term solution.
Burnout and workplace mental health might be big buzzwords at the moment but as we hopefully return to some sense of normality, we may quickly forget.
Regularly revisit these steps and never stop asking your employees how they’re managing. People are standardly programmed to fire back ‘I’m fine,’ but don’t let that stand. Ask specific questions; what’s holding them back, what do they want to do in the future, how are they feeling? Creating a more open workplace will mean you can identify issues as they arise and not wait until burnout hits your business.