Burnout is more than just being tired and needing a break. It is now a recognised condition by the World Health Organisation (WHO), who define burnout as:
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
There is no denying it can be challenging for organisations to find the perfect balance, as no two people experience stress and pressure the same. I’ve heard suggestions, on more than one occasion, that the incidence of burnout amongst employees was not work related, but due to their personal lives or personality. While life brings its own set of challenges, organisations can’t afford to ignore the responsibility to create a working environment that allows employees to maintain wellbeing and positive mental health.
Society hasn’t just adopted technology, we’ve adapted our behaviour and habits to fit. In the same way, employees adapt to the culture and work practices that are set by employers and managers, and behave accordingly. If there’s an expectation of long hours or constant tight deadlines, then employees will adapt and work to meet those expectations. An isolated employee exhibiting signs of burnout may indicate a personal circumstance. But if the number of employees showing signs of burnout is more than would be typical, then the issue points to poor culture, work practices or hiring decisions.
While the employee’s behaviour and choices need to change to avoid burnout, it’s the culture and practices of an organisation that are often the underlying cause or fuel for the negative impact on employee mental health and wellbeing.
Many organisations in the media and creative sector have signed up to and agreement (the Mentally Healthy Minimum Standards), which is a great start to set the standards and expectations so as not to exacerbate the risk of burnout in our workplaces.
So, what can your organisation do to support employees and reduce the risk of burnout?
Is stress normalised in your organisation?
If working under prolonged periods of stress are normalised across an organisation, through embedded work practices or management culture, then employees will tend to conform and try their best to meet expectations. Normalising stress can lead to widespread mental health issues, not to mention high staff turnover. Has your organisation adopted a high productivity mindset at any cost? A good approach is to keep checking in with staff though pulse surveys, or external review to stay aware of the work practices of other similar organisations in the sector.
What are the expectations around communication in your organisation?
Whatever you expect of someone, they will rise or fall to it. If there is a culture of always being available and “on”, whether it’s after hours or weekends, there is a risk of insufficient mental rest from work. Just reading emails and thinking about work issues, at night and across the weekend, removes the ability for mental recovery from stressful periods. The culture of communication needs to be led from the top, and from within each team subculture. Have policies of no emails outside set times. If an employee chooses to work late and send emails, schedule them to be sent in the morning. Encourage employees to stop checking emails on weekends and late at night.
Are employees expected to respond on sick leave and annual leave?
Technology has removed the sanctity of being “off sick” or “on holidays”. Being overseas used to mean being uncontactable. The accessibility for a quick question, or cc’d into emails and messaging systems, can turn annual leave into just working from somewhere else in the world. Eight days is the minimum length for a holiday to truly rejuvenate mentally and physically. If this is interrupted often, the benefits of taking a holiday are dramatically decreased. If an employee is sick, encourage them to take sick leave instead of “just working from home”.
Is there a culture of tight deadlines that consistently blow out?
Anyone who has worked in agency or client facing work will know, that the promise of delivery to clients is often less than humanly possible. While it is typical behaviour to maximise a timeframe and work on a project right to the deadline, if deadlines are consistently blowing out, or preceded by excessive overtime and calling on extra resources, maybe it’s time to re-educate clients or review the project planning and scheduling.
Is wellbeing a real conversation?
Prevention is better than the alternative. As wellbeing is unique to each individual, the organisation’s role may include providing tools and resources, but, most of all, allow employees the autonomy and flexibility to manage their lives as adults. PWC reported that Wellbeing is one of the top 10 organisational capabilities for the future. To replace self-care being seen as an indulgence, maintaining wellbeing needs to become an expectation.
Do your leaders demonstrate self-care?
GLWS is leading the way, advocating for wellbeing being built into the leadership capability, to role model and develop deeper understanding of what they themselves and their employees need for their own self-care.
As more organisations feel the effects of economic pressure or rapid growth, there will be a push for efficiencies to create more with less. Overtime, poor work culture and prolonged stress silently builds until it impacts physical and emotional health. The question each organisation needs to ask is, at what cost to employees? And if it’s impacting the team, is it impacting me?