Heavy workloads have been the norm for staff in corporate Australia and the public sector for years; the ongoing debate concerning work-life balance shows that. Then along comes Covid-19, and burnout seems to be everywhere in the workplace now, alongside people re-evaluating what’s important to them.
Let’s take a step back for a minute and define what we’re talking about here. Most staff at times have felt under stress and overwhelmed; that’s the nature of work in the 21st Century. However, individuals have mostly managed this workplace stress without it pushing into a more debilitating syndrome that we call “burnout”.
Burnout was coined as a term separate to stress in the USA in the 1970s and has continued to be a workplace issue that is now reported across the globe. It has grown in significance over the last few years for several reasons.
The first that hit us was having access to digital work tools in the home through the now ubiquitous use of smart phones to access email, Teams and so on. This ready access to digital tools does improve work flexibility but for many it blurs the lines of personal and professional life. How many times do you hear the ping of a new message and feel the need to respond to it immediately?
Second is the move to less secure work. Even those individuals with ‘good’ jobs can often work with the unspoken threat of redundancy over their heads.
Third is the pace of change, the often-overwhelming amount of work, and the need to make decisions quickly in a fast-paced environment, which can all lead to stress and eventually burnout.
Fourth, and the most current, is the impact of Covid-19. Organisations had to, or chose to, re-structure the workforce. We all needed to work from home to a lesser or greater extent. A consequence of this is missing the social cues for coffee/lunch break and home time. How many times have you found yourself absorbed in a task only to discover it is 2pm and you haven’t had lunch? Additionally, some had to act as a full-time teaching assistant for children as they attended school online. All this additional pressure – which was on top of the general feeling of too much work and too little time – pushed many people into burnout. Women are reported to have borne the brunt of this additional work as they carried out most of the labour associated with looking after children in the home during this time, whilst also trying to hold down their own work commitments (Smith et al., 2022).
This type of burnout at its worst can lead to death – Japan has a specific term for death by overwork, ‘karoshi’.
Burnout is now identified as a genuine occupational issue and included in the International Classification of Diseases. It has become a global workplace phenomenon and research has identified burnout in various occupations including teaching, nursing, academia, medics, and other healthcare workers. The following factors may contribute to job burnout (Mayo Clinic, 2021):
- You have a heavy workload and work long hours
- You struggle with work-life balance
- You work in a helping profession, such as health care
- You feel you have little or no control over your work
Burnout can also be brought on by personality traits and mindsets such as perfectionism, pessimism, needing to be in control, and feeling unable to say ‘no’. Of course, some of these traits can also be triggered by the workplace, so we do need to understand if being unable to say ‘no’ for example is coming from someone’s personality or from the understanding of the workplace environment where saying no is not accepted.
The symptoms that have been identified with burnout include (WHO, 2019):
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy (for example, feeling unsuccessful or ineffective at your job)
What can managers do to help?
If you think you recognise that your staff are starting to show signs of burnout, what can we do as managers to help? At an individual level, we should immediately discuss the situation and help the person put in place coping mechanisms such as providing some additional cover for specific tasks, re-distributing work to other team members, suggesting time off (as long as the work doesn’t pile up of course), and counselling support through an EAP (employer assistance program). This is a short-term intervention to immediately provide relief but there is also more we can do. This, of course, will take more time.
One of the contributing factors of burnout is poor job design. So, we can start to evaluate people’s particular job descriptions to determine if they can be improved. Hackman and Oldham’s (1976) Job Characteristics Theory laid the foundation of job design that we use to this day. According to this theory there are five characteristics of good job design: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and job-based feedback. If we can re-design jobs to have as much of these requirements as possible, this should result in fewer feelings of burnout.
What can individuals do?
There are also activities that individuals can do to work through burnout and come out the other side, and to ensure that they do not fall into the burnout trap again.
- Always take your annual leave. Everyone needs time to recharge their batteries and taking the leave owed to you or making time in your own business cycle to take leave, is critically important for your health.
- Learn to set boundaries. Understand what is important to you in your work and career and then learn to say ‘no’ to requests that don’t meet your core needs. It sounds easy, and I recognise it isn’t always, but it is something that can be practised, and it gets easier with practice.
- Accept the things that aren’t in your control. As employees or even business owners there are plenty of external influences that aren’t under our control. Learning how to not let them stress you out is key – identify the issue, accept it, and move on to something you can control.
- Take regular exercise. Yes, I know that for nearly every ailment exercise is prescribed as a solution, but exercise has been proven to lower stress hormones, which are a key component of burnout. Even a short daily walk outside is enough to lower cortisol levels (Hunter et. al., 2019).
- Sleep. Getting your 7-8 hours of sleep a night sounds like a luxury when you’re so busy, but guess what, you will feel far less stressed if you do get the right amount of sleep. Sleep is so crucial that even a slight depravation can affect short-term memory, judgement and mood and long-term sleep issues result in high blood pressure, obesity and an increased likelihood of dementia. Research has shown that up to 45 per cent of Australian adults do not get enough good quality sleep (Adams et al., 2016).
- If you have work tools such as Teams or email on your phone disable notifications outside of your standard working hours so you don’t feel obliged to quickly check that message.
Burnout doesn’t suddenly happen, there are plenty of warning signs before we get to a crisis state. As managers we should be on the look-out for red flags that might mean that individuals are heading to being burnt out and take appropriate actions before that point.
If you need more information about managing your digital life, check out Smart Work.
Adams, R., Appleton, S., Taylor, A., McEvoy, D. and Antic, N. (2016). Report to the Sleep Health Foundation 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults. Adelaide University.
Hunter, M. R., Gillespie, B. W. and Chen, S. Y.-P. (2019). Urban nature experiences reduce stress in the context of daily life based on salivary biomarkers. Frontiers of Psychology, 10.
Hackman, J. R. and Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16: 250-279.
Mayo Clinic (2021). Job burnout: how to spot it and take action @ https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642.
Smith, J., Abouzaid, L., Masuhara, J., Noormohamed, S., Remo, N. and Straatman, L. (2022). “I may be essential but someone has to look after my kids”: women physicians and COVID-19.” Canadian Journal of Public Health 113(1): 107-116.
WHO (2019). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organisation @ https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases.
Dr Michelle Gander is a Chartered Fellow, an IML ANZ Board Director, and an Associate Professor in Sociology at Flinders University where is holds a position as Dean (People & Resources). She teaches courses related to employability and her research is on contemporary careers, and gender equity in the workplace.