A line of matches against a green background. One has lit the start of the line and a large flame is burning through them one by one, symbolising burnout.
Image: © chones/Stock.adobe.com

What happens when we ‘power through’ burnout?

26 Nov 2021

Employers know that burnout levels are increasing, but it’s important to step in and tackle it head on before it’s too late.

A recent survey from HRLocker found that more than half (52pc) of respondents are experiencing burnout.

The company surveyed 1,000 full-time employees across Ireland to assess their stress levels and the primary causes of stress.

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This is a common thread with many other surveys and reports from around the world suggesting a significant increase in stress, exhaustion and burnout among the global workforce.

Another recent survey, this one of US workers, found that 89pc of respondents reported experiencing burnout over the past year.

And new research from Laya Healthcare, which surveyed 1,000 employees, shows that while productivity levels are up since last year, it is at the expense of employees’ mental health, morale and motivation, falling by 19pc, 23pc and 17pc respectively.

While it’s easy to acknowledge that this increase in burnout is a problem, it’s a very different thing to take steps to actually address it, whether you’re an employee on the verge of crashing or a manager starting to notice the signs among your team.

Burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon”. While this can seem problematically vague for those who are experiencing it, Prof John Gallagher, chief medical officer at Cork-based Cognate Health, sees it from a different perspective.

He said that because burnout is considered a workplace phenomenon, it is not so much about the individual as much as it is about the impact that the workplace environment has on them.

“We can support the individual, but the real question is how do we fix the workplace and the impact it is having on the employee?”

‘The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact’
– DR SARAH O’NEILL

Many people will be familiar with the symptoms of burnout, which include profound exhaustion, cynicism about work, decreased productivity and extreme emotions.

However, it’s also worth noting that some people are more prone to burnout than others. “More often than not these are the more idealistic, committed and dedicated employees,” said Gallagher.

Dr Sarah O’Neill, chartered psychologist and chief clinical officer at Spectrum Life, agrees that it can often affect the most high-achieving employees. However, she said there are other people who can be prone to burnout too.

“People can also experience ‘bore-out’ when they are in a role that is dull, repetitive and there is a distinct lack of stimulation. The third common iteration is when people become worn down over a period of time,” she said.

“While the first example may be much more aligned with what we think of when we imagine burnout, the end result is the same.”

When the elastic band snaps

Burnout occurs when there are unusual levels of pressure or stress over a prolonged period of time. Those who start to suffer the symptoms will most likely have been ‘on’ for a long time with no opportunity to rest and recover.

“Think about an elastic band,” said O’Neill. “They stretch and bounce back. If the band is stressed, stretched out without the opportunity to bounce back and reset, overtime it loses its stretch. You can think about stress this way. Then burnout is when the band eventually snaps.”

Often, employees don’t mean to ignore their own health. Even the overachievers would rather reap the rewards that come with rest and recovery, which are higher energy levels, more productivity and better focus.

But sometimes an ongoing stressful period seems never-ending, like during a pandemic for example, and it can feel impossible to find the time to actually stop and take a break. You might just feel like you have to power through your stress in the hope that you’ll make it to the end of the tunnel.

However, it is this ‘powering through’ that will directly result in burnout. While it’s important for employees to be aware of this, Gallagher said it’s vital that employers and managers know when to step in.

“What employers and managers will see if an issue isn’t addressed is that the person will pull back and distance themselves from their work, become more cynical and ultimately disengage from the workplace completely. The physical symptoms are similar to those seen across other mental health issues such as feelings of exhaustion and weariness, as well as bowel and stomach problems,” he said.

“It’s important that managers engage with employees early once they see any of these warning signs and that they check in to see if the person is OK. Often the people that are most likely of experiencing burnout are those who take on more and more work without raising any red flags about their mental health and ability to cope.”

O’Neill agreed that early intervention is key but that it’s also important that managers understand how each member of the team responds to stress and pressure within the workplace.

“It’s critical for managers to know their teams well enough to recognise when something is off. That makes it possible to mitigate issues before they progress too far by managing an employee’s workload and having open conversations with them about the mental wellbeing,” she said.

The pandemic effect

Burnout has been a concern for employers and employees for several years now but, as we have seen from recent surveys and reports, the pandemic has likely compounded the stressors that can bring about burnout.

O’Neill said there has been a 30pc increase in people presenting with burnout compared to pre-pandemic trends.

“The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact and we’re seeing pretty consistent results from research where employees are identifying blurring of boundaries impacting their mental health.”

Gallagher has seen a similar increase, including increased incidences of anxiety and depression.

“It would seem that mental health concerns will be at the core of our work in occupational health for the foreseeable future. There are the more obvious reasons for this – increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, disconnection from people, as well as the general stress and anxiety of living during a global health crisis,” he said.

“But this is all compounded by the fact that it is easier to hide any issues from your colleagues and employers while working remotely and being less connected in real life.”

However, it’s not all bad news. O’Neill also said there are some positives to be gleaned from the pandemic when it comes to mental health. “We have collectively lived through a traumatic time which has, at its best, given us a new perspective on our lives. The theory of post-traumatic growth shows how a difficult experience can shift your values and your perspective on different situations in life, allowing you to move through them and grow as a result.”

Employers’ duty of care

While it’s important for employees to watch out for signs of burnout in themselves, both O’Neill and Gallagher agree that managers have a duty of care when it comes to workplace risks for their employees and these risks must include psychosocial risks.

“What I always say is that managers and employers need to ‘ask, don’t assume’ when it comes to discussing mental health concerns. We can’t assume a person is dealing with an issue and we can’t leave them to handle it by themselves. Managers need to reach out to employees and ask them how they are doing, especially if there have been any warning signs,” said Gallagher.

“Sometimes employers and managers prefer to pull back when an employee appears to be dealing with a mental health issue but that is when we need to lean in and address it openly and directly.”

‘We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health’
– JOHN GALLAGHER

O’Neill said it’s also important to look at the supports in place for teams, such as an employee assistance programme, and examine whether or not they are sufficient.

“We know people are increasingly experiencing mental health distress, that impacts them in the workplace and the mental healthcare system is, like many parts of the health service, overwhelmed by demand,” she said.

“Even if mental health distress is not a work-related issue, it can be in the interests of companies to provide support to employees from both a cultural and business perspective.”

While having support systems in place are vital, Gallagher highlighted the fact that the area of mental health can still be highly stigmatised. “While we have seen great developments to date, there needs to be an increased effort made to eradicate any stigma around mental health in the workplace,” he said.

“We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health – we still see employees asking for their medical certs to say they are suffering from back pain rather than stress, anxiety or depression. We need to cultivate an environment where employees are as comfortable saying they need time to care for their mental health as they are saying they need time to prioritise their physical health.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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