The Lasting Impact of Burnout
UK organisations may be adjusting to a post-pandemic world, says Marlene Mey from Top Employers Institute, but for their employees, the battle against burnout is far from over.
Mental Health Awareness Week has transformed our understanding around mental health issues, particularly over the last few years. The Covid-19 pandemic is (hopefully) behind us, but in its wake it has left a trail of challenges that we continue to battle against. Amongst those, burnout remains one of the biggest.
Research from Ceridian at the end of last year showed us that burnout remains a big problem. More than three-quarters (79%) of UK workers had experienced burnout, it revealed, with 35% reporting high or extreme levels. And although employers have been making rapid adjustments towards a new normality of hybrid working arrangements in the first half of 2022, many of their employees are not feeling remotely “normal” about their new working lives.
Burnout: Quick to arrive, Slow to heal
In the UK, the first wave of COVID-19 had an immediate impact on mental health, with psychological distress at work increasing to 28% in April 2020, from 18% in 2019, according to the Institute of Labour Economics. While the impact of the pandemic was instantaneous for mental health, the scarring it caused is unlikely to recede any time soon.
In addition, with new hybrid working arrangements emerging, employers are treading a narrow tightrope. Some risk coercing reluctant employees back into office-based working patterns that no longer fit with their lives. Other businesses have opted for a largely remote workforce, with employees left at home - and very much alone. According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in four of us feel lonely some or all of the time. For the great majority of us, social connection and belonging are central to our well-being. In its absence, burnout can quickly take root.
Three Steps Forward
All of this comes at a time of disconnect between many employers and their employees. Too many of the former know they need to adapt to survive but take little account of the psychological readiness of their employees for further change. And some employees already feel burnt out, with a lack of recognition for discretionary effort put in through the pandemic. So, what can be done to tackle the lasting impact of burnout.
- Formalise and enshrine processes. Our observation is that many businesses are either lacking the necessary formality in their mental health processes, or simply letting them wither as the post-pandemic world emerges. This is a big mistake - the pandemic could be over, but the pain for many is not. The answer has to lie in long-term formalised mental health programmes. Only then will employees have the confidence that they are being looked after properly, whatever their working arrangements. For example, UK Top Employer, Ageas UK, has employee wellbeing programmes with a strong formalised structure, including initiatives such as an online wellbeing community, an employee assistance programme, and access to Mental Health First Aiders and training sessions for managers, delivered by the mental health charity Mind.
- Create a sense of psychological safety. Organisations also need to create a “psychologically safe” working environment, in which employees feel able to talk about mental health, without fear of judgement or a negative impact on their career. For example, Top Employer Equiniti (EQ), the UK’s leading share registrar has a strong Mental Health network in place with 200 members. This raises awareness of mental health and feeds back to the business on colleague experiences. To have spaces in this way brings multiple benefits; including helping to avoid burnout in the first place, to recognise the issue and give support wherever possible.
- Give practical burnout support immediately. When the worst does happen, data from Certified Top Employer organisations here in the UK provides us with some hope around what is possible. Nearly two thirds of UK Top Employers (63%) provide burnout recovery support, up from less than half (49%) a year earlier. And almost three in five (58%) guarantee time to “unplug” and/or take stress-relief breaks (up from 44%). Knowing practical support is available is essential. The best businesses understand that burnout support is an ongoing commitment to employees, not a one-off reaction to exceptional circumstances.
Without action, the impact of burnout could get much worse before it gets better. So now that the pandemic is (hopefully) behind us, it is vital for businesses to understand that tackling mental health, and burnout in particular, must remain a formalised commitment that can be shared and discussed safely, and where support and practical help is always on hand when it is most needed.