Understanding burnout – why it matters and what to do about it

​Most of us understand the importance of taking time off work when we are injured or unwell, however more and more workplaces are seeing staff call in ‘sick’ to mend their mental health. As the conversation around mental health grows, there is also a growing trend of mental health-related leave days coming into workplaces.

Mental Health Days are a key step in ensuring employees can prioritise both their mental and physical health, however this may be merely treating a symptom rather than the root cause of the issue - "Burnout". Recognising the signs early to avoid or manage the effects has benefits for both employees and employers.

What is Burnout?

The concept of burnout isn’t new, in fact, the very first paper to discuss “Burnout” as a potential syndrome was published in 1974. In 2019 the World Health Organisation officially categorised and defined Burnout as a legitimate occupational experience resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. This has been a monumental step in the right direction, as prior to this, Burnout and more generally, stress were undistinguished, making the research, study and data on work-related causes of stress difficult to isolate.

According to WHO, there are three main dimensions that are indicative of burnout:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

  3. Reduced professional efficacy

Differentiating burnout from general disengagement

It is crucial in understanding the impact of prolonged effects from the pandemic on mental health. Burnout doesn't develop overnight, making it easy to overlook the warning signs.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is a valuable tool that has been refined over decades to identify burnout. By scoring employees on the three dimensions of burnout, the MBI distinguishes between those exposed to chronic work-related stress and those who are simply disengaged.

It's important to recognize that burnout, unlike general work dissatisfaction, involves a mental load that can drain the efficacy of high-performing staff without regular breaks. Mental fuel is a finite resource, and both the mind and body require sufficient rest to function effectively.

A recent study conducted by researchers at George Mason University demonstrated the benefits of breaks. Two groups of students were assigned a detailed task for 45 minutes, with one group given a short 5-minute break halfway. Surprisingly, all students in the group with the break significantly outperformed their counterparts who sustained performance without a break.

The cost of burnout and the value of rest

We have all seen the statistics and fiscal costs of employees who are burnt out, but what is often overlooked is the intangible costs to the health, physical and financial wellbeing of the individuals and their families.

Prolonged exposure to mental strain without adequate rest can lead to mental fatigue, which challenges your ability to focus, resulting in loss of efficacy, increased depression, and anxiety. As such, burnout can have a very real effect on a person’s overall well-being. Researchers have linked anxiety and heart disease due to the persistent strain on their hearts. 

While there’s good evidence that breaks are beneficial to ensuring that burnout doesn’t occur, it’s less clear how to build the perfect break—in fact, according to the American Psychological Association, the type of rest depends on the person, the type of work and the situation.

Knowing the warning signs: What are organisations doing?

Are you exhausted, experiencing anxiety, forgetful, frequently sick, or feeling isolated and detached? Recognising the signs early can help you manage the effects and make resting BAU.

Organisations are prioritising and providing avenues for staff to proactively manage their mental health. A number of firms, including Indeed, have implemented unlimited leave policies to foster guilt-free leave days. However, trends show that Aussies aren’t utilising these.

Here at Six Degrees Executive, we recently implemented the ‘Wello’ - a dedicated day where all employees can openly and actively plan a wellness day every quarter to rest, relax or do something to help detach from work and combat burnout. The initiative allows us to convert a day of personal leave into a scheduled day away from work to rest and reboot so we can return to work at our best.

Implementing such programs and having the leaders openly demonstrate and celebrate the benefits of taking time to recover, paves a pathway for all to do so, openly. Having scheduled time out from work also helps negate the impact of employees calling in sick without notice.

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