Skip to main content

Oliver Harrison, CEO, Koa Health

When the World Health Organisation officially classified burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in May 2019, nobody could have foreseen what was coming less than a year later. Now, nearly 18 months into a global pandemic, burnout dominates many headlines. According to a survey by McKinsey, 49% of employees are feeling at least somewhat burned out, and this number is rising. For many, burnout leads to feelings of depletion or exhaustion; for others, feelings of intense stress can lead them to more serious mental health problems.

Not only do businesses have a moral responsibility to look after the wellbeing of their staff, but burnout can have a huge knock-on effect on the business bottom line too. At present, burnout is currently stoking a record-high turnover of staff and reduced productivity, and therefore has to be addressed.

Why is burnout on the rise?

There are many factors in the past 18 months that have increased the spread of burnout. As lockdowns were enforced across the world, work-life balance and office environments were overturned, with people clocking longer hours than ever before as work and home boundaries blurred. Koa’s own research around wellbeing at work found that 67% of HR managers had seen an increase in working hours of remote employees throughout the course of the pandemic, with almost a third (31%) seeing an increase of 10% or more in hours worked. Couple this with a reduced holidays and social life – plus the pressures of homeschooling children or caring for elderly relatives – and cases of burnout unsurprisingly rose.

Of course, many of these factors are outside the control of employers yet employers still play a critical role in mitigating burnout among staff. Recent research found that burnout was three times more pronounced for employees who were already feeling anxious due to a lack of organisational communication. As whole businesses shifted online, those that regularly shared updates with employees were much more likely to maintain an engaged and motivated workforce.

How can business leaders deal with burnout?

Many employees experiencing burnout detach themselves from company life, so they’re less likely to respond or engage with things like internal survey requests; often used to measure wellbeing. In addition, burnout symptoms become even harder to spot when so many are still working remotely. It’s critical that business leaders instil a culture where mental health is prioritised. Educating all employees on mental health issues will help to create a peer support network in which people are better able to spot the signs of burnout among colleagues and help elevate the problem to HR.

While we are seeing many high profile companies recognise and tackle burnout, unfortunately there are no quick remedies. Over the past few months, I’ve seen a few companies give their workforce a fully paid week off to help them re-energise. While I’m pleased to see leadership teams have the courage to shut down and prioritise staff wellbeing, we all know that burnout is not something that can be fixed in a week. The same problems that were causing stress will inevitably remain when everyone returns to work.

Instead, leaders need to understand the root cause of these issues and seek to address those. This means looking at the core working culture of the business. For instance, do employees feel pressure to answer emails through the night and during weekends? Is there a culture of openness in discussing mental health challenges? If these questions uncover some ugly truths, consider at the least distributing guidelines to staff, setting out clearly what is expected of them. Even better is to model these guidelines yourself; if business leaders make excuses for not following the guidelines then the rest of the organisation will soon follow suit.

In addition to culture, workforces need the right tools to help them manage and improve their mental health. Evidence-based, ethical and personalised digital solutions provide the clearest path forward for delivering mental health at scale, regardless of how and where employees work. These discrete, private solutions can help those who may be uncomfortable sharing concerns of burnout with their managers at work.

Unless leaders address the sources of burnout and turn the tide on this secondary epidemic, it’s likely that not only will general wellbeing deteriorate, but we’ll see productivity plateau and even more resignations as people re-evaluate what they want from their work. Seizing the opportunity now to embed mental health as a cultural priority, including investing in digital mental health solutions, is the best way to reduce burnout and improve employee wellbeing in these testing circumstances.