The great British burnout epidemic

The past couple of years have undoubtedly taken a toll on our health. The catalyst may have been COVID-19, but the impacts of the past two years go far beyond a respiratory disease. 

Since the pandemic began, the mental impact has resulted in a range of negative feelings, from stress and exhaustion to languishing and general dread for people across all industries. The line between work and leisure time has become increasingly blurred now that we’re working from our sofas, and it suddenly feels far more difficult to stick to our set working hours. 

This is, of course, set within the greater tumultuous backdrop of real life. When we look back at cultural events – such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the murder of Sarah Everard and the ongoing climate crisis – there’s no surprise that a considerable amount of our time is consumed by feelings of anxiety. 

What happens when our working lives cause disproportionate levels of stress? Welcome to burnout. 

What is burnout?

Coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, the term has evolved to describe a state of ‘emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress’. 

Until recently, it was merely considered a ‘stress syndrome’ – but the WHO redefined it in 2019 as ‘a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. 

Symptoms of burnout include:

  • Overwhelming lack of energy or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or negative feelings towards one’s career
  • Reduced workplace productivity

This redefinition may seem minor, but it was a considerable step towards removing the stigma surrounding burnout by providing greater clarity on the syndrome. With greater clarity comes greater understanding towards those suffering and, more importantly, addressing the root of the issue. 

One thing that may shock us most is the prevalence of burnout among employees; a 2021 study found that 73% of respondents felt burnt out, and this is up from 61% before the pandemic. 

Stress vs. burnout

Stress and burnout are often discussed interchangeably, but their differences should be recognised. Although burnout may arise from high levels of unmanageable stress, it results in feelings of disengagement, lack of motivation and an inability to see any positive in their working situation – resulting in emotional damage. Comparatively, stressed individuals can over-engage, feel hyperactive and anxious, primarily causing physical damage. 

What’s causing the burnout epidemic?

The exact causes of burnout are varied, but one thing’s for certain: the current generation of workers is becoming increasingly burnt out, and this shows no signs of slowing. 

Common triggers can stem from an unsupportive working environment, lack of work-life balance, or unclear job expectations. The prevalence of remote working has exacerbated all these elements of our work lives; for many, physical distance from colleagues and managers has created (actual or perceived) social schisms, loneliness and a lack of support. 

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, Gallup conducted a poll which found the top contributors towards employee burnout included unreasonable time pressure, lack of support or clarity from managers, and unreasonable time pressure.  

In an award that no one wants to win, millennials were coined the burnout generation a few years ago, and research shows they’re still the most burnt out of any age bracket. This could be due to a number of reasons: lack of autonomy in the workplace, financial stress or, loneliness. 

Recent data also identified London as the most burnt out UK region, with inhabitants reporting the highest levels of stress during lockdown – scoring an average of just 0.65 out of five (five being least stressed). Londoners were also found to work the most overtime, giving an extra 10.56 hours per week to their jobs. 

What can we do about burnout?

Our current ways of working are clearly unsustainable – both for individual employees as well as the companies they work for. 

Across many sectors, the glorification of ‘grind culture’ has resulted in employees working themselves to exhaustion in order to fulfil expectations. This overwork is then celebrated by senior managers, creating a vicious cycle encouraging other workers to do the same – or feel guilty if they stick to their contracted hours. This benefits nobody: research has shown time and again that working about 55 hours a week has no impact on job performance. 

Fatigued employees will have detrimental effects on themselves and their employers in the long run. A recent survey found that employees experiencing burnout were 63% more likely to take sick leave and 2.6x more likely to look for a new job. 

‘Having very stressed-out workers isn’t conducive for that worker’s productivity and output. It also impacts the whole team as the majority of workers work collaboratively,’ says ways of working expert Dr Heejung Chung. 

Burnout is not an individual problem to fix: it requires an organisational solution. And companies who fail to do so will be at a significant disadvantage in the long run. Employers have a responsibility to prioritise the wellness of their workers, especially in a climate where our health is being discussed more than ever, and at a time where workers are leaving their jobs in droves

Workers are now predominantly demanding better work-life balance and improved wellbeing in their workplaces. Managers who are trained to recognise the early signs of burnout can really help to improve the satisfaction of their team and create solutions to the root of the problem, rather than waiting to treat severe symptoms. Gratitude from higher-ups is another small but significant way of boosting morale and individual satisfaction; similarly, integrating practices such as sharing daily gratitudes can create team connections even amongst remote workers. 

As well as feeling supported, employees want to know they’re trusted. A Gallup survey found that workers who were able to take more flexible work schedules actually worked longer hours than average, but had higher levels of workplace satisfaction. 

When employees are given the freedom to plan their day in the way that suits them best and take breaks when they need to, they’re more productive and far happier. The pandemic has shone a light on physical and mental wellbeing, but to create a future-proofed working environment we must learn – and be encouraged – to pause.

Eight things to do with your work breaks to boost your productivity

We all know the feeling of being sat at work and feeling unproductive. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tasks, or maybe you’re feeling unfocused. Whatever the reason, staying unproductive is not only bad for our jobs but can also affect our wellbeing.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to combat this – by taking a quick, high-quality break (HQB), we can revitalise ourselves and improve both our mental and physical wellbeing. Regular high-quality breaks really help us to get our work done and feel great while doing it, leaving us with more time and energy for the things we love: we call this true productivity.

So what are the best types of breaks to take? It differs from person to person, and some are better suited to the office or to working from home, but luckily there’s a lot of choose from. Read on to find out about the science behind these HQBs so you can try them for yourself!

Before we begin, know that taking a moment for yourself whenever you need is always a good idea. Listen to your energy levels and work strategically with your schedule and tasks to take the breaks that will benefit you the most. 

High intensity interval training (HIIT)

Despite the name, HIIT doesn’t have to be that high intensity at all to be an effective work break. It’s great for all fitness abilities and goals, be that building muscle, burning fat or simply getting your whole body moving – something most of us could seriously do with more of.

HIIT can improve your body’s ability to circulate oxygen and vital nutrients, and comes with many lasting health impacts including lowered blood pressure and sugar. That includes improving blood flow to the brain, helping it perform better and leading to enhanced focus, speed, memory and – you guessed it – productivity.

HIIT is a great choice for busy days; you don’t need to devote much time to experience all the benefits. 


Sitting at a desk all day can lead to muscle stiffness and particularly back pain. Stretching affected areas can quickly relieve this pain and tension. 

And stretching isn’t just great for relieving pain and tension, but for preventing musculoskeletal injuries in the first place – just ask our physio Charlie: it’s the one thing she wants everyone to do every day!

When we’re stressed, as many people are at work, our muscles tense up as part of our fight or flight response. You might particularly feel this in your neck, shoulders and upper back. Stretching can help to remind our bodies that everything is ok, and can help our brains to feel calmer.

Stretching isn’t just about relieving muscle tension. Getting your blood flowing delivers oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, helping to combat the dreaded fatigue.

The best thing is that you can stretch any time, anywhere – and you can feel the benefit in as little as five minutes, and even if you don’t have much space. If you’re in the office, a quick stretch in your seat could have you feeling better almost instantly – encourage your colleagues to join in! 


Yoga is a mental, physical and spiritual practice originating in ancient India. There are many different forms of yoga, and largely the physical aspects focus on breathing, strength and flexibility. The mental benefits of yoga are endless.

Many yoga postures help relieve back pain (this is especially important if you sit at a desk all day!)

Research has shown that yoga can help reduce stress – in one 2016 study, people who regularly practiced yoga were shown to have lower cortisol levels. With as many as 79% of people experiencing work-related stress, this can only be a good thing.

To make things even better, studies have also shown that yoga can increase energy levels and improve mood.

And according to Harvard, doing yoga strengthens the areas of your brain involved in learning, memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language.

The benefits of yoga don’t end when the workday does. Slower forms of yoga such as hatha and nidra can help you drift off to sleep after a stressful day. 


Meditation is really good for you, haven’t you heard?!

A lot of research has focused on the benefits of meditating at work specifically, and it turns out that meditation is the perfect high-quality work break.

There is a lot of research supporting meditation – but we’ll keep it to the need to know.. Meditation can help you to re-centre and re-focus.

The benefits of long-term meditation when it comes to executive function and attention are well documented, but one study looked into the benefits of ‘brief mindfulness meditation’. Their findings suggest that it can improve mood, reduce fatigue, anxiety, and increase mindfulness, and just four days of meditation training can ‘enhance the ability to sustain attention’. 

The office may not feel like the ideal setting for meditation, but one study’s findings suggest that there are still great benefits. Participants who used guided meditations on an app showed ‘a significant improvement’ in well-being, distress, job strain, and perceptions of workplace social support. These benefits were still seen at the 16-week follow up assessment, suggesting lasting benefits.

Meditation can also help with how we feel about work, not just how we feel at work. One cross-sectional study found that ‘meditation practice may positively influence job performance, including job satisfaction, subjective job performance, and work engagement.’

Talking about meditation with colleagues helps. One Cleveland Clinic study found that a meditation programme helped with stress and vitality at work – but it also found that peer support helped people to stick to a meditation routine and to make it their own. It also helped them to realise they weren’t alone: “We heard from people all the time, ‘I didn’t realize how stressed everyone else was.’”

So if you decide to take five, consider taking it with your colleagues! 


Affirmations are one of the least understood categories of breaks in the interlude library, but with a bit of commitment and the right mindset they have the potential to be life-changing. Better still, their benefits are truly baked in science, not woo woo.

Affirmations are positive statements we can say to ourselves to overcome negative thoughts, manifest good ones into existence and achieve goals – whatever they may be. They can be really powerful and a brilliant way to find motivation. Affirmations are typically said internally or aloud when alone, but they’re also very widely underused. 

Our brains are designed to be super efficient, which means they’re highly selective, take regular shortcuts and block a lot out. Repeated affirmations, for example “I am smart”, hack these pathways.

Just like our brains are responsible for unconscious bias, affirmations essentially enable conscious bias. Over time, repeating “I am smart” to yourself will lead to your brain searching for signs that back this up and present the proof back to you. Lo and behold, you’ll soon begin to believe what you’ve been telling yourself!

So, whether it’s finding your calm in stressful situations, meeting that impossible deadline, or committing yourself to the lunchtime HIIT class you’re dreading, affirmations are a fantastic way to take a moment for yourself, get your head straight and will your goals into reality.


Journalling, free writing, listing gratitudes and writing poetry or letters are just some of the ways that writing can be used as a high-quality break. And the best news is, all you need is a pen and some paper to get going!

Research suggests that writing can help us to be more self-aware, which can be very beneficial at work. As Christina Thatcher writes: ‘It can increase our confidence and encourage us to be more accepting of others. It can lead to higher job satisfaction and push us to become more effective leaders. It can also help us to exercise more self-control and make better decisions aligned with our long-term goals.’

Writing about work stress can have mental and physical benefits. Research from Cambridge University Press had participants write about stressful or negative emotions for 15-20 minute sessions: ‘Those who do so generally have significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who write about neutral topics.’

Writing can help to cultivate emotional intelligence, the importance of which at work is becoming increasingly recognised. If something at work is stressful or annoying, taking a moment to pause, write that emotion and sit with it can help you to re-centre. It can also help you to deal with future situations in a better way.

Writing out gratitudes only takes a few minutes but can be an extremely powerful tool in improving mental wellbeing. The trick is to be very specific, and to be very consistent. And as we all know, how we feel generally has a huge impact on how we feel at work.

Taking a moment to write about any frustrations can help us to properly identify and deal with them, giving us more space to do our jobs well. Psychologist Diane Barth says even just five minutes a few times a week is enough to help clear the mind.


You don’t have to be an artist to enjoy the many benefits of art. 

It’s no secret that painting and drawing can help people feel calmer and more focused – but did you know there’s a whole body of research that backs this up, too? 

The famed psychotherapist Carl Jung would prescribe drawing mandalas (circular spiritual symbols containing intricate geometric patterns) to patients after noticing the calming effect this activity had.

A 2007 study by Bell and Robbins had two groups create a list of their 10 most pressing stressors. One group was then given materials to create art, while the other was given a stack of art photos to categorise. The first group demonstrated  ‘significantly greater reductions in negative mood and anxiety’.

Rather than being just mindless scribbling, doodling can be a thinking tool. The Wall Street Journal wrote: ‘Recent research in neuroscience, psychology and design shows that doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information. A blank page also can serve as an extended playing field for the brain, allowing people to revise and improve on creative thoughts and ideas.’

Don’t feel up to drawing or painting something yourself? Not a problem! Studies have found that just the act of colouring in can be tremendously soothing and can even help with reducing anxiety. No wonder those adult colouring books fly off the shelves!

So whether you have your paints at the ready or just the back of an envelope and a pen, even just a short arty break can have you feeling calmer and more focused during your work day.


There are so many great benefits to cooking, shown both anecdotally and scientifically. From improving memory to fostering a sense of accomplishment, cooking is much more than just a means to an end. 

And not to mention, when taking a cooking breaks, you’ll always end up with something delicious! Whether it’s a snack break or a way to unwind after a long day, cooking is a brilliant – and underrated – HQB (just maybe not one for in the office!)

Cooking is great for giving our brains space to solve problems. We’ve all had the experience of having our best ideas while doing supposedly mundane activities. Harvard researcher Shelley H. Carson says that ‘a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.’ Get chopping and let the problems solve themselves!

“Cooking at home, or other places, is good for your mental health because cooking is an act of patience, mindfulness, an outlet for creative expression, a means of communication, and helps to raise one’s self esteem as the cook can feel good about doing something positive for their family, themselves or loved ones,” says Julie Ohana LMSW and founder of Culinary Art Therapy in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Between giving your brain ‘incubation time’ for ideas and playing around with flavours and ingredients, cooking can improve creativity. And, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the creative act of cooking is positive, too. The study found that people who engaged in creative hobbies such as cooking, writing and doodling showed higher positive affect and ‘daily flourishing’.

Of course, an obvious benefit of cooking is the health and nutrition aspect. Cooking can also help us to learn more about what we consume. There is always a place for comfort food, too. One study found that eating food associated with warm feelings ‘not only improves a sense of well-being, they also decrease loneliness.’

Although psychological research into the mental health effects of cooking is still in early days, preliminary findings are looking positive. One systematic review reported that ‘cooking interventions may positively influence psychosocial outcomes‘. 

High-quality breaks are for everyone

Not every type of high-quality break works for every type of person, and that’s ok! What’s important is to find what works for you and to make sure you build taking regular HQBs into your work day. 

Subscribe to interlude today to try out all of these breaks with a two week free trial.

The productivity puzzle: what is the missing piece?

The financial crisis of 2008 took a huge toll on productivity in the UK, and more than a decade on, levels have failed to recover. Often referred to as the ‘productivity puzzle’, it is the biggest enigma of the UK’s post-crisis economy that continues to baffle economists to this day.

The slowdown in productivity has had a huge impact on our nation’s output, wages and living standards, but is there a solution in sight?

The startling stats

During the four decades leading up to 2008, the UK’s labour productivity – the amount of gross value added (GVA) generated per hour worked – grew at a steady rate of more than 2% per year

But the financial crisis completely destroyed this: at the end of 2009 the annual productivity increase had fallen to around 0.7%, meaning the amount being produced per hour of work had fallen by two thirds. 

By 2016, the UK’s productivity was 16.3% lower than any of the other G7 countries and in 2018, productivity levels were 19.7% below the pre-2008 trend path – the worst productivity rates since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

We can’t afford to ignore the productivity crisis – solving it could yield £83bn a year for the economy. We need to work out what went wrong, why productivity levels remain so low, and most importantly, how we can shift the balance. 

Why has productivity plummeted?

Despite extensive research and a wide range of suggestions from experts, the causes of low productivity levels remain poorly understood.

One thing that is clear is that it is definitely not because workers in the UK are lazy – in fact, we are towards the top of the European league table according to a number of work intensity measures.

Suggested reasons for our dismal productivity rates include Brexit, low hiring costs, cuts to public investment, slowdown in the rate of innovation, and mismeasurement of output growth. 

All of these things are likely to have contributed, but they are only one piece of the productivity puzzle. The UK’s productivity problems run deep and there will be no one-size-fits-all answer.

How has COVID-19 changed things?

At the start of the pandemic, there was hope that COVID-19 might help to solve the productivity crisis. And on the face of it, the initial figures were promising, with productivity rising by 0.9% in the first quarter of 2021, around twice the pre-pandemic rate.

However, it soon became clear that this apparent increase in productivity was coming at the expense of burnout. Throughout 2020, four in five workers in Britain felt close to burning out, with 34% of them considering therapy for the first time.

Research shows that employees were spending more hours working in order to maintain output. The figures were exceptionally bad in London, with 51% of staff admitting they were working beyond their usual hours when working from home, compared with 40% of all those across the UK.

It is clear that the pandemic was not the immediate silver bullet for productivity and workplace wellbeing that many were hoping. However, it may offer us the chance to reflect, reset, and change the way we do things going forward.

Who is responsible for improving the UK’s productivity?

The Government undoubtedly has a role to play in finding solutions to the productivity crisis. 

In his speech to the 2021 Conservative Party conference, Boris Johnson claimed that his party would ‘solve the national productivity puzzle… by investing in skills, skills, skills’. And Rishi Sunak’s Autumn Budget argued that ‘providing a world-class education to all our people’ would help to create a ‘higher-wage, higher-skill, higher-productivity economy’. 

Other important steps include increased investment in infrastructure and further R&D spending and credits.

Companies also have a pivotal role to play in increasing productivity, and it seems as though they are starting to realise this, with 80% of business leaders planning to take significant steps to improve productivity in 2022.

What is the missing piece of the productivity puzzle?

The single most effective way to optimise productivity is to put people first.

Companies need to invest in employee engagement tools and offer more comprehensive training. And managers need to lead the way by giving manageable workloads and eliminating long hour cultures. 

Encouraging employees to take regular breaks is also absolutely key, as this leads to better and more sustainable performance.

There are many pieces to the UK’s productivity puzzle – now is the time to start fitting them together and working towards a more productive future.