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.