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May is mental health awareness month and it’s important that we highlight aspects of work that can affect mental health and wellbeing. The topic we are showcasing in this article is burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines burnout as ‘something that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. Work-related stress can affect performance, motivation, happiness, organisational culture and productivity. Burnout can affect anyone, at any level of an organisation and isn’t based on age, gender, race, religion or any other personal characteristics.

Although burnout isn’t technically a medical diagnosis, it is understood to be related to conditions such as anxiety and depression. Individual circumstances, including family life, personality and childhood experiences, can explain why some people will have burnout and others won’t.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the lines between work and personal life became even more blurred. People spent more hours working and often juggled their personal lives simultaneously.

There are many symptoms associated with burnout. These symptoms include feeling a lack of energy, exhaustion, detachment from work, reduced confidence at work, self-doubt, procrastination and taking longer to complete tasks. Burnout is also more likely when there are particular work characteristics and environments. These environments include instabilities such as unpredictable work environments, lack of autonomy at work, unclear job expectations and toxic or dysfunctional work dynamics. Additionally, work environments where there is a lack of social support, extremes of activity (such as too much or too little work) and poor work-life balance can also be factors as to why employees are more likely to burnout.

Is it common?

According to a Deloitte research study, 77% of those surveyed experienced burnout in their current job and the top driver for this burnout was lack of support and recognition from leadership. Another survey by McKinsey Health found that a quarter of the 15,000 people surveyed had experienced burnout symptoms. A 2023 Gallup poll also highlighted a significant increase in burnout rates. In 2012, 36% of those surveyed had experienced a lot of stress the day before, compared to 44% in 2023. A CIPD survey from 2023 found 79% of those surveyed said they had identified stress related absences in their organisations the year before, and in larger organisations the figure was 90%.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) research study found that working long hours contributed to the deaths of 745,000 people based on the risk of developing strokes and heart disease in 2016, which had increased by 29% from 2000. Other research studies highlight that there is a strong link between burnout and the development of physical and psychological health conditions including:

  • 57% increased risk of workplace absence lasting more than two weeks (Borritz et al, 2010)
  • 180% increased risk of developing depressive disorders (Ahola et al, 2005)
  • 84% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (Melamed et al., 2006)
  • 40% risk of developing hypertension/ high blood pressure (von Kanel et al, 2020)

Burnout in the non-profit sector

According to a review conducted by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, approximately 50% of non-profit employees experience burnout.

How to deal with Burnout

Burnout is a significant problem in today’s modern workplaces, and the for-purpose sector, is no exception. There are some things organisations can do to increase the well-being and resilience of employees and create psychologically safe work environments.

  • Organisations should embed and incorporate wellbeing policies. To start this, a wellbeing audit is a great step in the creation of any wellbeing policy. The audits are a chance to take stock of what is going on in the organisation and understand what the well-being level of the establishment is. These include wellbeing questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups to understand what people think and how they feel they are supported within the organisation. Additionally, sickness level data and absenteeism levels can also be measured.
  • Creating a wellbeing council or steering group for your organisation is another way to manage and understand wellbeing. These councils will include key representatives across the organisation, communicate wellbeing concerns, and help support wellbeing initiatives.
  • Another way to deal with burnout is to train and upskill employees and senior leaders to understand mental health and how it manifests in the workplace. This can be through training a series of mental health first aiders, a programme that gives employees the tools to support and signpost people to mental health services.

Individuals can reduce burnout by doing a number of things. These things include:

  • Communicating and sharing their feelings with a trusted person, e.g., a therapist, work-based coach, colleague, or loved one.
  • They can also get involved in organisational training, including resilience, wellbeing, and mindfulness training.
  • Another way to reduce burnout is to ensure employees have time for relaxation and leisure, e.g. exercise, holidays, etc.
  • Doing more of what a person enjoys and carving out time to develop hobbies and spend time with family and friends can create meaning and support for others.
  • Lastly, if there are aspects of the role you don’t like, you can engage in job crafting. Job crafting includes creating a job to include more of what individuals want. This can be done by shadowing, cross organisational project teams and getting involved with projects that you are interested in but may not be directly part of your role.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can find more help and resources at: https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/

Grace Mansah-Owusu
Dr Grace Mansah-Owusu
Organisational Psychologist | Website

Grace is a chartered psychologist, diversity and inclusion expert, trainer, career coach and psychotherapist. She has over twelve years of experience working in people and organisational development, research and facilitation roles in the for purpose sector, academia, transport and logistics and various consultancies. Building on her academic and theoretical knowledge, Grace provides opportunities for people to grow, develop and flourish in the workplace. She is passionate about research, career development and all in all curious about people. Grace has three times been recognised on HR Magazine’s HR Most Influential list for thinkers and practitioners whilst also campaigning for diversity and inclusion within psychology disciplines for over five years. She has also presented at conferences and events for CIPD, HR Magazine, Richmond Events and the British Psychological Society.