20 January 2020

January: time for employers to tackle burnout

Having been identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”,1 “burnout” is a responsibility firmly at the door of employers. While January can be a time to welcome new challenges for some; little daylight, existing targets to meet and new targets to set can all be a catalyst for burnout. And with January being a time when employees may feel the grass is greener elsewhere, it’s particularly important for employers to address the issue of burnout and tackle it before it becomes a problem.

Support needs to start with culture; it needs to enable staff to look after themselves; and it needs to provide access to further help if needed.

Deep-rooted cultural change

Characterised by feeling exhausted and mentally distant or cynical about one’s job, as the viral Buzzfeed article suggests, “burnout [isn’t] something we can cure by going on vacation.”2 It requires deep-rooted cultural change and a thorough examination of the organisation. The always-on culture, having work WhatsApp groups that don’t adhere to standard business hours and being available whilst on holiday for example, all contribute to burnout. Employers that truly want to support the mental wellbeing of their staff, need to genuinely consider whether their working culture supports wellbeing, and be prepared to make some major changes if not.  

Empower staff to take charge

Identified as being pushed beyond a limit, burnout can be triggered at work when a scenario no longer feels manageable – such as being given even more work when already at capacity, or informed that a pay rise isn’t happening again. This needs a solution that goes beyond just encouraging staff to exercise regularly to recharge their batteries.

Self-reliance is key in helping people build resilience, and there are a number of avenues to help, from practicing mindfulness, to learning to manage time better. Employees can also benefit by utilising proven psychological techniques to help them manage stressors that can lead to burnout more effectively.

For example, company-sponsored mental health apps can check in with users daily, and they can conduct a litmus test as to how they are feeling that day and provide coping mechanism techniques if required. This can help staff to take control and prevent burnout from occurring, rather than risk it potentially spiralling out of control. Apps can guide users through how to deal with their emotions, challenge distorted thoughts, break negative cycles, get perspective and learn to think positively and relax their body and mind – which can alleviate burnout symptoms. They can also help identify when further support is required, making a recommendation for external intervention if needed, such as counselling, for example.

Provide access to support if needed

When staff need more support, it’s important to make access to professional help available. A good starting point is to appoint mental health first aiders in the workplace, as they understand the culture and know staff.

Mental health first aiders can provide a valuable route to tackling burnout, as trained staff can help identify individuals that may be struggling, or be a first port of call to those that are. Rather than being expected to deliver on-the-spot support, mental health first aiders can signpost employees to further help if needed. They can be trained to spot the signs that someone may be experiencing burnout – such as being more cynical about their job, not as efficient, or struggling to get to work on time – where other team members may be too busy to notice.  

It’s important that further help is made available if needed. This might be something run internally such as open staff forums, or it may be external resources such as an employee assistance programme, specialist counselling or GP services.

Brett Hill, Director of Distribution at Towergate Health & Protection, comments: “The gravitas the WHO brings in identifying burnout as an occupational hazard means that employers need to stand up and take note. The advancements in technology have resulted in the pace of working life being faster than ever before and our ability to switch off is getting more difficult. Combined with the fact that we are also working later into our lives, it’s easy to see how burnout could be considered as a condition of our times.

“Whilst traditional techniques, such as the importance of taking holidays and regular exercise still apply, we have more sophisticated options available to help staff tackle burnout too. Our overall understanding of mental health is constantly improving, enabling employers to be much more proactive in managing the issue, and there are many more options available to provide that support, including Apps that can help employees keep a daily track on their mental health, which can help prevent issues escalating. Businesses may be required to take a deeper dive into their working culture to truly tackle mental health in the workplace, but it’s clear that burnout isn’t an issue that can be swept under the carpet.”


1. https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/ 
2. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work