21st century syndrome


How to address the snowballing effects of workplace burnout.

It appears that burnout is the syndrome of the 21st Century. More and more people are burning out, resulting in the World Health Organisation’s reclassification of burnout as an official syndrome. Burnout happens due to overwork, leading to complete exhaustion, cynicism and disengagement.

While individuals suffer from it, it is organisations that need to ensure adequate health and safety measures are included at work. We lead by example and leaders need to be able to show their staff that their wellbeing is prioritised. As it stands, an unhealthy workforce is an unproductive one. That is why having leaders that highlight the importance of staff wellbeing is so important for the health and wellness of the organisation as a whole.

Presenteeism and burnout: a cultural phenomenon

We all know them. They are the colleagues that are at work from the crack of dawn, and yet, still tirelessly working away long after everyone else has left. Do they even get much work done? You may think. Probably not as much as they think. The fact is, the more you work, the more you think you’re being productive, but after a certain amount of time, our productivity rapidly declines. It is much better to go about working in bursts, when we are more efficient, and take plenty of rest, than it is to work longer and longer hours.

The overworking epidemic is known as presenteeism. We are simply working away, clocking up the hours, but not actually getting all that much done. It is a workplace cultural issue that becomes normative. Employees feel they’re unable to challenge it because they see everyone else doing the same thing. Employees that go to work when ill, or work longer hours than expected, often work less than their full capacity, resulting in a decline in productivity. The reduced absence, in the form of presenteeism, may appear to be profitable at first, however, this is not the case. In fact, presenteeism can cause a decline in productivity in the individual employee by at least one third, and is more costly to the employer than its counterpart, absenteeism. It is also what makes employees sick.

“Employees that go to work ill, or work longer hours than expected, often work less than their full capacity, resulting in a decline in productivity.”

Research has shown that presenteeism can lead to burnout. We simply get sick from working too much. More so, with presenteeism firmly rooted in organisational culture, we end up not taking time off when ill. It can be a vicious cycle and only one that an organisation’s leader can address.

Many of the causes of presenteeism and subsequent burnout are linked to poor leadership, lack of managerial support and structural level problems within the organisation. The rise in presenteeism is also due to dual earning households, employer expectations and a lack of paid sick leave, but naturally, individual differences within personality need to be accounted for, as studies have shown that emotional intelligence moderates stress related presenteeism. So, while stress at work and a presenteeist culture does cause burnout, personality is still a factor in how much a person will cope. That is not to lay blame on the employee, but to focus on what can be done to support each individual staff member when stress is an issue.

The implications of burnout

Burnout has many consequences; organisational implications, employee ill-health, and family disruption. The societal and economical impact is important to note, because burnout costs the global economy $300 billion Australian dollars annually. Half of Australian workers were feeling burnt out from work, leading to the World Health Organisation’s prediction that within a decade there will be a global pandemic.

The global cost of burnout is high. It is a result of higher attrition rates, turnover, absenteeism, presenteeism-induced productivity losses, and compensation costs. The effects impact on the health and wellbeing of employees, organisations and society as a whole. There are also five costs to employee’s health and wellbeing: emotional or psychological; interpersonal skills; changes in attitudes; physical health problems; and, behavioural changes. Individuals can suffer from compromising ill health, both mentally and physically, which include anxiety, depression, and cardiac problems. Musculoskeletal problems are also associated with acute stress and linked to burnout. Compromised health further impairs work performance, meaning greater productivity losses for the organisation. This is often coupled with increased stress at home, which impairs social and family functioning.

Engagement, the opposite of burnout, also suffers as a result of burnout. Employees that display burnout symptoms often have lower job satisfaction, and organisations suffer from turnover, morale problems, reduced performance and productivity. A broken psychological contract – the non-verbal assumptions employees have with their organisations – can also cause burnout and disengagement. When unfulfilled, an employee’s morale may suffer, disengaging from their work, and compromising their productivity, which can also hinder the productivity of other workers due to staff shortages and lead to skills shortages. Then there is the social contagion affect. This arises from morale dropping in a team. If one person is burnt out, other team members psychologically feel the impact.

While burnout research originally focused on the human-service professions, it impacts on professionals in every sector. In London’s central business district, known as the square mile, burnout is a problem. This is predominantly due to the long working days, organisational restructuring that brings in uncertainty, and the lack of purpose that people feel. You see, burnout does not discriminate. Whether it is a global organisation or your own small business, burnout can wreak havoc. The causes of which can cause a trickle-down effect, where the stress impacts on other team members. A decreased sense of purpose in these roles can lead to indifference at work, negative feelings, and compromised efficacy. All of this changes the attitude at work, and can impact on the feelings of other employees, too.

Be their leader

You may be wondering what can be done to prevent burnout at work. The fact is a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Employees all have their own unique personalities and life experiences. What works for one, may not work for another. For that reason, focusing on providing support for your team is paramount.

No one should be expected to work long hours without additional support. While work projects may need the additional evening input, making this a regular thing can affect your organisation’s health and compromise on staff wellbeing. It also places you at risk of inflicting psychological harm, whereby staff are too scared of the consequences of leaving work at a reasonable hour.

Leading by example means taking breaks and encouraging your staff to do so too. Tell them to go for a walk if they can and set team health goals. It could be as simple as a 20-minute walk in the afternoon to get some fresh air. Have a policy on after work e-mails and support your team through non-work-related goals. Show them that you have a life outside of work, too.

Sarah Tottle, business psychologist and coach and founder, Sydney Psychotherapy

This story first appeared in issue 28 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine