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Stress maybe a given but burnout shouldn't be inevitable in the modern world of work



79 percent of workers are experiencing some level of burnout with nearly half of UK workers (48 percent) showing signs of moderate to severe burnout – only second to Japan (50 percent). This is according to The O.C. Tanner Institute’s 2020 Global Culture Report. And the figures are only likely to have grown during lockdown, given recent research showing increased stress and anxiety levels.


The World Health Organisation has officially classified burnout as a syndrome related to ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. The symptoms include mental and physical exhaustion, a feeling of futility and the employee intentionally distancing themselves from their work such as through absenteeism. 


The impacts of burnout are significant, impacting employee health, engagement and performance as well as staff turnover. The Global Culture Report also revealed that 95 percent of HR leaders admit burnout is hurting retention at their organisations, contributing to up to one-half of annual workforce turnover.


No organization intentionally wants to burn out its employees, but the figures speak for themselves. Stress is inevitable in the workplace and in life. But it doesn’t have to be pervasive. Employers can and should play a more active role in preventing burnout.


So what do employers need to do? There are a few potentially powerful interventions.


Encourage real weekends and holidays. Burnout happens when people aren’t given enough time to disconnect, rest, focus on other aspects of life and recharge.  Leaders need to create an environment where taking time off is not only allowed but championed. For example, German auto manufacturer Daimler set a bold example when it launched its “Mail on Holiday” program that autodeletes an employee’s incoming emails while on vacation so they can fully disconnect. The sender is then notified that the email has been deleted and given the option to reach out to a colleague or resend the email when the employee is back in the office.


Expand wellbeing programs, benefits. Standard programmes are good but not enough.  Consider paid time off for “mental health” or recuperation days. Also offering stress management training to employees, giving them the tools to manage stress effectively and prevent burnout.  If too late, one to one mental wellbeing coaching can support those who are already displaying signs of burnout. And it’s important to ensure everyone, including managers, understand the signs of stress so they can recognise when support is needed. Again, that can be provided through training.


It’s important to lead by example and create an open culture in discussing burnout so employees take advantage of these resources. For example, managers and senior leadership prioritizing personal commitments overwork, ensures employees feel more comfortable doing the same.


Create a culture of recognition.  Lack of support or recognition from leadership fuels burnout.  One way to fix that?  By encouraging people to simply say “thank you” when reports, colleagues and even bosses do their jobs well. Research shows that companies with high-recognition cultures benefit from less turnover and better performance, probably in part because the environments feel less stressful, or the expressions of gratitude enable people to better cope with the demands they face.


Organizations can also say thank you in bigger ways:  Last year, Deloitte U.S. announced a year-end shutdown for all employees. This “collective disconnect” between Christmas and New Year’s not only recognized employees for their hard work but also, because everyone was off at the same time, eliminated any potential guilt or fear about letting colleagues down. 


Get in touch to find out more about Illuminate’s mental wellbeing training and coaching.