‘Think burn-out, think workplace’ as Aviva’s 2020 Health of the Workplace Study identifies the wider issues of workplace stress.
‘Burn-out’ news stories are everywhere: from athletes, to social media stars, from television personalities to politicians. And more worryingly, in places where it has far-reaching consequences: the NHS, law enforcement and air traffic control. But just how big is the issue and what can be done about it?
To make sense of burn-out, the first step is to identify and define it. Today, mention ‘burn- out’ and people understand the term in its psychological context, although it’s interesting to note that the terms ‘burn-out’ or ‘burnout’ were used primarily in relation to fire-related events and aviation matters until the 1970s.
The syndrome was first identified in a 1974 research paper ‘Staff Burn-Out’ by New York- based psychologist Herbert Freudenberger and in the following years, research primarily focused on burn-out associated with doctors, broadening the scope to teachers, the armed forces and managers as the decades rolled by. However, these studies rarely sought to define a precise mental state that differentiates burn-out from work-related stress, anxiety, or chronic fatigue syndrome. In short, ‘burn-out’ became a contested diagnosis, the subject of a wide range of causal explanations and medical speculation.
The burn-out debate: medical condition vs occupational phenomenon
As the debate continued, ‘burn-out’ dropped its hyphen and ‘burnout’ became a widely-used term in popular culture, as ‘burned out’ rock and movie stars filled the airwaves and cinemas. However, the question remained: was burn-out a specific medical condition? Last year, the authoritative World Health Organization settled the issue by including burn-out in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, concluding that it is not a medical condition.
Like a ball thrown from clinical psychologists for employers to catch, it’s now officially defined as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ Burn-out syndrome has three key characteristics: 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. In short: think burn-out, think occupational context.
Aviva’s study identifies potential burn-out risks
Our UK-based 2020 Aviva Health of the Workplace Study, conducted by YouGov (3), indicates that burn-out syndrome could extend far beyond the previously-mentioned occupational groups. The survey showed that half of employers and employees say they’re having to work harder than ever before while juggling multiple demands on their time. Nearly half – 47% of employees – say that the current work environment has an impact on their mental health and 69% report they see their colleagues are feeling stressed.
To make things worse, only 36% of employees say they’re good at saying ‘no’ when they’re busy and under pressure. Almost half of employees say they ‘often forget things’, while 44% have put off seeing health professionals because they’re too busy at work. Aviva’s study has measured employee and employer sentiment since 2007 and reflects the views of a huge range of occupational groups and industries. And in 2020, this is exactly where the World Health Organization has thrown the burn-out syndrome ‘ball’. It’s now in the workplace court, ready to be played; an internationally-recognised occupational phenomenon and one which employers and employees need to take steps to prevent.
Our research revealed worrying behaviours that can contribute to employee burn-out. People are working longer hours, not taking breaks and often turning down social arrangements. They’re also reporting feeling under pressure and exhausted, which can be early signs of burn-out syndrome. While line managers are doing their best to support their teams, very few have received mental health training and pressure from the top means that they’re offering support, but there’s still the expectation that the work will be done.
To sum up, what’s clear is that both employees and employers have a role to play in preventing burn-out syndrome. Employers can work to create a culture that actively supports mental wellbeing, which includes introducing HR policies that help employees better manage the multiple demands on their time. Empowering line managers and staff with the tools and skills to adopt coping mechanisms and encourage a healthy, happy working environment can also help control burn-out.
As the World Health Organization embarks on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace, we expect to see more focus and debate on this important issue throughout 2020.