Over the past few years, the UK workforce has seen a drastic rise in presenteeism — the act of working longer hours, despite not feeling either mentally or physically up to it. While it seems normal to attend work even when you’re not feeling your best, it has been found that this actually affects performance, which can lead to workplace stress and, in extreme cases, burnout.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognised burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”. It’s defined by feeling exhausted, mentally distanced from the work you’re doing, and lacking in performance. The fact that the WHO has felt it necessary to label these feelings of intense workplace stress should give an indication of the severity of the issues at hand. But what can employers and employees actually do about it?
What is burnout?
As the WHO explains, burnout is exclusive to the workplace, and shouldn’t be used to describe feelings of stress in other areas of life. However, as it causes similar feelings to depression, it can actually have an effect on one’s life outside the office. Symptoms of burnout include social isolation, self-doubt, neglecting personal needs, insomnia, headaches, feeling empty, and a pessimistic mentality — all of which are similar to depression. And thanks to a mixture of soaring property prices, decreasing salaries, and an increasingly competitive working culture, millennials typically feel more stress in the workplace than older generations.
These feelings may start off as low levels of stress and symptoms may be far between, but they can quickly build and grow beyond control, so it’s important to keep on top of them. If left to worsen, the effects of stress can quickly take a physical toll on the body, even leading to problems like eczema, heart disease, cognitive problems, and reproductive issues. It’s crucial to recognise when you could be starting to suffer from burnout, especially if your health suffers as a consequence, and you should try to take action sooner rather than later.
How can you avoid burnout?
Avoiding burnout is becoming increasingly difficult to do, and in some quarters, millennials have been branded the Burnout Generation. However, it’s best to be mindful of it, even if you don’t experience any symptoms, as this can make it easier to prevent them from developing in the first place. Pay attention to your body and what it’s telling you. Feeling any form of ongoing exhaustion is a sign that your mental health is at capacity, and you should slow things down and take a break. Use annual leave to spend time focusing on your self care and prioritise the universal core needs: eating, sleeping, and moving.
Ensuring you’re well rested is crucial to cognition, and can keep you focused when you do return to work. It’s recommended that healthy adults get between 7 and 9 hours sleep every night, so it could be worth building a sleep schedule and sticking to it if you’re falling behind. It’s also a good idea to boost your activity levels during the day, as it’s been proven that exercise releases mood-boosting endorphins in the brain. These help to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, and generally keep burnout at bay. You should also pay attention to what you’re eating. Maintaining a balanced diet gives your body the nutrients it needs to work at its optimum level, leaving you feeling energised and focused for longer.
How can employers avoid workplace stress?
As a manager or employer, it’s important to take note of workplace procedures to ensure that your team avoids feeling overwhelmed or stressed. It may well be worth investing in regular stress management training for your team, to help identify the signs and symptoms of stress and pressure, as well as learn helpful ways to cope. MTD Training, for example, offers advice on how to make decisions under pressure, as well as identifying the differences between pressure and stress, and how to deal with both on a daily basis.
It’s also a good idea to keep a balanced workload between teams and departments, with clear and realistic expectations throughout the business. You could also benefit from a simple reward system, as this can keep staff motivated and incentivised to do well, while also letting them enjoy the benefits of their hard work. However, it’s not always possible to offer cash bonuses or pay rises as a reward, especially if you have a large team or you’re running a start-up. In these cases, you should look at alternative reward systems, such as increasing workplace perks, offering extra paid holiday days, or hosting team away-days. You should note, however, that these perks should be used to get away from work, rather than keeping the focus on the business, as it allows your employees the chance to break away from the office and unwind. It can also be a good idea to offer mental health days for your staff, which is like sick leave but aimed specifically at reducing stress and anxiety levels. This can help prevent feelings of burnout which, ultimately, keeps your business’s productivity at a sustained high level.