According to the Health and Safety Executive’s report, ‘Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain’ published in November 2022, 17 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22.
Whilst employee burnout has long been a challenge facing employers, instances of burnout spiked during the pandemic as individuals sought to adjust to lockdowns and balance work with caring responsibilities; all whilst adjusting to a new way of working. In the aftermath of the pandemic, many employers have retained some degree of remote working in a bid to improve the work-life balance of staff and to promote good mental health and wellbeing as well as increase productivity and reduce staff turnover.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding this new approach to working, a rising number of employees are still reporting being burnt out, suggesting that the rise cannot be attributed solely to the pandemic. Employers should therefore remain alert to their obligations towards staff and the risks associated with not effectively managing, and minimising, instances of burnout amongst their staff.
What is burnout?
Burnout is defined as ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’ and since 2020 has been recognised as a medical condition in its own right by the World Health Organisation. Common symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, headaches, irritability, palpitations and panic attacks, or a combination of these and other symptoms. Left unmanaged these symptoms can develop into anxiety and depression and in turn, impact physical health.
Burnout is often attributed to long working hours however this is rarely the only contributing factor. Difficult workplace relationships, unreasonable expectations, concerns about job security and feeling undervalued all often also contribute. Most commonly it will be a mix of several of these factors as well as other factors which results in an employee experiencing burnout. External factors, such as the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis may also result in an increased risk of burnout
How to tackle burnout?
1 Be proactive, not reactive
All employers are under a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their workforce as far as is reasonably practicable. This obligation extends to safeguarding mental wellbeing. Employers should treat burnout in the same way as any other workplace hazard. Creating a supportive culture and fostering open communication are key to preventing and tackling burnout.
As with most employment issues, prevention is better than cure and employers should therefore ensure adequate training is provided for managers so that they are able to recognise the early signs of burnout. If employees who are usually productive and motivated show signs of exhaustion, disengagement, and reduced productivity, then they might be experiencing burnout, or be close to it. Where signs of burnout are evident, managers should evaluate workloads and redistribute tasks to ensure unrealistic expectations are not being placed on any one individual or team.
Implementing a supportive and collaborative approach to flexible working requests will also help to avoid employees reaching burnout in the first place. By allowing employees greater flexibility in how and when they work, a better worklife balance can be created.
2 Monitor working hours
The Working Time Regulations 1998 provide for a 48-hour limit on weekly working time and whilst there is the ability for a worker to agree to ‘opt out’ of this limit, employers should exercise caution and cannot require employees to work excessive hours where this would create a reasonably foreseeable risk to health, safety and wellbeing of the worker or others. An employee cannot be forced to opt out, nor can they be victimised or otherwise treated badly for refusing to work excessive hours. An employer who puts pressure on staff in this way will risk Employment Tribunal claims. An employee’s agreement to opt out can be rescinded, with notice, at any time. Where significant overtime is required, consideration should be given to compensating employees with time off in lieu.
Penalties for non-compliance with the Working Time Regulations can amount to a criminal offence, punishable with a fine.
3 Policies and procedures
A full suite of policies and procedures dealing with health & safety and mental health & wellbeing should be put in place to monitor wellbeing and support staff. Staff should also be encouraged to take annual leave and adequate time away from work, with no expectation to regularly check and respond to emails out with working hours.
A culture which results in high instances of burnout is likely to present significant challenges and costs. Burnt-out employees are more likely to take sick leave or seek alternative employment which can result in increased turnover, lost revenue and increased hiring/training costs.
Employees who experience severe burnout may have potential claims for constructive dismissal and/or disability discrimination against their employer. Compensation can be sought for both financial and non-financial loss which can be significant.
The issue of burnout is more prevalent than ever before however organisations can take action to protect themselves and their workforce from the onset and its effects of it. Whilst there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to the issue transparency, communication and training will enable organisations to find a solution that works for it.
If you’d like to discuss how best to minimise the potential for burnout or any aspects of employee wellbeing in the workplace, please get in touch with our specialist employment law team.
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