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Occupational Health & Safety

How to manage burnout in the workplace – tips from an Organisational Psychologist

8 Dec 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

Feeling ‘burnt out’ has become a familiar scenario for workers across all industries, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For those lucky enough to have stayed in their roles, furloughs and redundancies elsewhere in the business have added weight to their workloads, and heightened pressure to perform. For office workers, ‘stay at home’ mandates have made it difficult to separate home and work life. And for parents, school closures have meant juggling multiple balls at once.

Throw in other stressors relating to the pandemic and these scenarios have proven beyond some people’s coping power. In fact, mental health related PBS prescriptions spiked in March 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions were first introduced. Distress calls to suicide prevention charity Lifeline have also hit record highs throughout the pandemic.

While ‘burnout’ is often used colloquially in everyday language, it is a recognised psychological condition, one with serious consequences if left untreated. Aside from health outcomes like insomnia and depression, occupational issues such as job dissatisfaction and absenteeism can result.

As employers, how do we recognise burnout in our staff, how do we prevent it, and how can we support teams experiencing burnout when we may be feeling burnt out ourselves? Organisational Psychologist and Co-Director of Transitioning Well, Dr. Sarah Cotton, shares some expert advice ahead of the Mental Health at Work Conference, hosted by Informa Connect.

What is burnout and what causes it?

Burnout is usually the result of chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been properly managed, explains Dr. Cotton. According to the International Classification of Diseases, it has three distinct phases:

“The first phase is exhaustion – a sense of being totally drained or having an empty tank,” Dr. Cotton said. “If this is not dealt with, people can go on to experience detachment and irritability. And if that phase is not properly addressed, a reduction in professional capability can result – along with it, acute feelings of self-doubt.

“Throughout COVID we have seen heaps of workplace exhaustion,” she added. “So it’s really important for employers to manage that before things spiral out of control. Unfortunately, exhaustion isn’t something that can be fixed with just two weeks of Christmas leave.”

Early warning signs

Before burnout takes hold, people often exhibit early warning signs and Dr. Cotton cautions employers to watch out for these in themselves and in their people.

“Early signs of burnout can vary between individuals. For me, I know I need to slow down if my chocolate intake goes up and my exercise levels dwindle. It might not be realistic for an employer to spot this, but other signals can be more obvious. For instance, if somebody is quieter than usual, more cynical, detached or reactive, then there could be something more going on behind the scenes,” she said.

Intervening early is important, Dr. Cotton adds, with burnout often likened to the famous ‘frog in the pot’ analogy. “Put a frog in boiling water and it will jump out immediately. Put a frog in water and slowly turn up the heat, and the frog will sit there until it meets a grim fate,” Dr. Cotton said.

Importance of micro-habits

While watching out for early signs of burnout is important, altogether preventing it may be more so. Ian Firth of SafeWork NSW says corporations often neglect the ‘prevention’ aspect of their WHS obligations, with existing mental health programs typically focussed on ‘early intervention’ or ‘recovery’ from psychosocial injury.

“A lot of companies have introduced measures like EAP, mental health first aid training, and stigma reduction or awareness raising programs like ‘RUOK Day’. This is great, but these fall under the ‘early intervention’ phase [of WHS obligations]. [To be fully compliant] companies also need to implement a risk management process – identifying psychosocial hazards and putting measures in place to mitigate them,” he said in a recent interview.

To prevent burnout, Dr. Cotton recommends encouraging healthy micro-habits amongst your team. These may include a proper lunch hour, regular breaks, or a reduction in overtime. When working from home, simulating the physical markers people typically have between work activities can also be useful.

“Usually in an office, we separate meetings by walking to and from meeting spaces, perhaps getting a coffee and having a chat with co-workers along the way. The data tells us that not having this demarcation when working from home is taking a toll on people’s mental health and exhaustion levels. Adding buffers like a short walk outside between meetings, or perhaps a ‘fake commute’ to work, can be really beneficial,” Dr. Cotton said.

Designing and executing policies

Broader policies for supporting work life balance are also crucial. These need to reflect both the future of work and current workforce demographics, Dr. Cotton notes.

“Flexibility policies years ago looked very different to those that are needed for 2022 and beyond. For example, the sandwich generation – where people have to care for both children and their elderly parents – is growing; and workers in this position may need added support to help them manage their responsibilities.”

Having protocol in place, however, means nothing unless employees know about it; and leaders execute it consistently.

“It’s important for all business leaders to be on board with mental health policies and practices, communicating them effectively with their people and ensuring that they are also looking after themselves and walking the talk. Now more than ever it is important that leaders are well so that they can lead well,” Dr. Cotton concluded.

Dr. Sarah Cotton together with Rachael Palmer and Vanessa Miles will share further advice on managing burnout with a focus on managing work-life conflict at the 2022 Mental Health at Work Conference, hosted by Informa Connect. The event will be held 7-8 March at the Rydges World Square. Register your interest now.

If you are an NSW business with less than 200 employees or a not-for-profit of any size, you can also access free mental health coaching to help your business or not-for-profit create a mentally healthy workplace including how to proactively address workforce exhaustion and burnout more generally. For more information or to book your coaching call visit the mental health at work website.


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