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Burnout at work: How to prevent, recover and overcome

What is burnout?

Burnout is a not a medical diagnosis. It is a syndrome that results from chronic or unrelenting workplace pressure that has not been successfully managed and occurs in about one fifth of the population. (Lindblom et al, 2006) It usually comes from experience in the workplace, indicating there are problems within the organisational culture.

Despite the fact that burnout could occur in any worker, the occupational groups frequently subjected to elevated or prolonged levels of pressure who are at increased risk of burnout include:

  • doctors
  • nurses
  • social workers
  • teachers
  • police officers
  • and those in the financial sector.

Symptoms of burnout

Individuals suffering burnout will experience all of the following:

  • physical and mental exhaustion
  • increased mental distancing from their work
  • negative feelings towards their job
  • and poor work performance or efficacy.

In addition, they may have ideations of suicide, want to leave the job, experience self-doubt, and physical symptoms such as headaches and/or musculoskeletal pain.

The psychosocial factors linked to burnout include:

  • a lack of autonomy or role clarity
  • unclear or unrealistic job expectations (including both time pressures and workload)
  • monotonous or chaotic work
  • a lack of managerial support
  • and a poor work/life balance.
Consequences of job burnout

The consequences of burnout can be devastating to a worker’s long term physical and mental health, for example developing cardiovascular or respiratory problems for example (Moss, 2019), and for the workplace it can lead to loss of productivity, high turnover of staff, higher absenteeism, and increased risk of errors. In 2016, the World Economic Forum estimated the global cost of burnout to be £255 billion (Tottle, 2016), which is not sustainable.

How to recover if you have burnout

There is no value in addressing the physical and mental health issues experienced by workers without addressing the workplace issues that have caused burnout. The physical and mental health issues are a consequence of the worker's interaction with the organisational culture so effective treatment entails getting to the root cause.

The correct approach would be to manage the workers wellbeing while simultaneously addressing the workplace concerns.

  1. Recognise the problem - it needs to be recognised that burnout has become a problem for the individual who is displaying the symptoms mentioned earlier. Once a problem is recognised, a workplace assessment should be conducted to establish the root cause/s.
  2. Determine severity - an objective assessment by an external professional should be used to determine the severity of the burnout on the individual’s physical and mental health. There are various tools that can be used to quantify the severity, such as the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach Leiter, 2021). The results will influence the interventions which are adopted.
  3. Plan and initiate an intervention – the interventions will include organisational changes to remove or mitigate the psychosocial risks. These can include: asking workers what they need to improve their work situation; revising workloads; reviewing deadlines; offering flexible working hours, team meetings and, rest hours; encourage breaks away from the desk; and regular catch ups with supervisors to monitor conditions. Interventions aimed to help individual recovery are diverse and depend on the severity of the condition and the symptoms experienced. The care plan should be tailored to the needs of the individual and could include a period of absence and rest, as well as individual interventions to manage workers resilience and physical and mental health.

How to prevent having burnout from work

Prevention of burnout must start at the workplace by creating a good organisational culture. The following are tips for managers and supervisors.

  • Create open channels of communication and ask workers what they need.
  • Be aware of workloads and time pressures placed on workers and ensure they are realistic and achievable.
  • Provide workers with support where it is need (emotional or resources as appropriate) and give workers deserved recognition for their outputs.
  • Ensuring workers understand what is expected of them and what level of authority and responsibility they have when completing tasks. Ensure all tasks are clear and confirm that both parties' expectations are the same/aligned.
  • Avoid repetitive and monotonous work where possible and ensure workers are stimulated by work activities.
  • Allow workers to participate in decision making processes so they feel a sense of value and loyalty to the organisation.

At an individual level, encouraging workers to maintain a good state of physical and mental health through healthy lifestyle options can also be helpful. This can include:

  • a regular exercise regime
  • good nutritional diet
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • and the use of meditation apps.

It is important to remember that we are not trying to fix the worker but rather the working situation and how the worker reacts to it.  

How to overcome burnout for employees

For workers there are habits and routines that can be established to protect them from developing burnout in the future. Some suggestions include:

  • know your limits - be realistic about what you can achieve in a given work day
  • manage workload - if you workload becomes excessive, have a conversation with your supervisor to shift deadlines or to share out some of the work
  • time management - planning your activities to allow for sufficient time to complete the task
  • regular breaks - take rest breaks away from your desk and do not slip into regular habits like working through lunch and eating at your desk.
  • communication - have open and frank discussions with your supervisor when you are feeling pressured to work out ways to manage this.
  • healthy lifestyle- good nutrition, regular exercise and good sleep hygiene positively affect how you cope with pressure

REFERENCES

Lindblom, K., Linton, S., Lundholm, C., & Bryngelsson, I.L. (2006). Burnout in the Working Population: Relations to Psychosocial Work Factors. International journal of behavioral medicine, 13, 51-59. 

Moss, J. (2019). Burnout is about your workplace, not your people (KM). Employee Retention, Issue. H. B. S. P. Corporation.

Tottle, S. (2016). It's costing the global economy £255 billion, so what can we do to stop workplace burnout? The Conversation, 2021. Retrieved 19 Nov 2021

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M.P (2021). How to measure burnout accurately and ethically. Harvard Business Review, 8. 

 

 

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