$11 billion lost because of burnout – here's how to stamp it out

Overworked? Underpaid? Feeling low? Your people are on the brink of quitting

$11 billion lost because of burnout – here's how to stamp it out

As the pandemic grinds on, burnout rates continue to rise across Australia. Burnout has serious consequences for businesses as well as overworked employees. Statistics gathered by the Australia and New Zealand Autonomy of Work Index 2021,found that 92% of serious mental health concerns in the Australian workplace are attributed to work-related stressors. Alongside the individual impact, these conditions cost businesses $10.9 billion per year.

The report also found 77% of employees in the region experienced burnout at least once in 2020. What’s more, 50% of respondents cited being overworked as a key factor contributing to burnout, with one in three citing not being able to disconnect from work. An acceleration of digital advances from enforced remote working, has been seen across Australia, helping employees become better connected but also blurring the lines between work life and home life.

The Australia and New Zealand Autonomy of Work Index 2021 report, suggests the pandemic has fast-tracked Australia’s digital business initiatives by six years. Today’s digital workplace sees employees switch between 11 apps 27 times per day to do their work. This constant context shifting depletes concentration, impedes agility, and disrupts focus time states the report.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organisation defined burnout, in its 11th revision of the international classification of diseases, in 2019, as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ resulting from chronic workplace stress and describes symptoms of burnout as energy depletion and exhaustion, increased mental disturbance from one's job, or feelings of negativism and cynicism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy. This measurement is based on the Maslach Burnout Inventory or MBI, a measurement used by 80-90% of researchers, says Gordon Parker, Scientia Professor of Psychiatry, The University of New South Wales. Prof Parker’s recently published book, ’Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery’ written with coauthors, Gabriela Tavella and Kerrie Eyers aims to more clearly define burnout by extending the MBI measure to include a much longer list of symptoms, called the Sydney Burnout Measure.

Professor Parker's research also identifies loss of feelings and enjoyment from people’s daily activities as symptomatic of burnout:

“They just don’t get a buzz out of anything so they tend to become more insular,” Parker told HRD. “So they’re not necessarily less empathic. People say - I can’t register information as I used to, my memory is not as good, my brain is a bit foggy. Women who have children say it's equivalent to baby brain.”

How can HR prevent burnout?

In his book ’Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery’ Prof Parker suggests employers include burnout awareness, protection and recover measures into their Occupational Health and Safety Assessments to ensure that employees are not made unwell by their work as well as optimising work conditions and cultivating a positive workplace culture.

“Burnout rates are lower in organisations that have effective and supportive leadership, are flexible, foster training and staff development, have constructive conflict resolution procedures, evidence justice and try to ensure that staff have meaningful work,” wrote Prof Parker.

Robust health and wellbeing programs, reduce the risk of high valued employees resigning, taking time off or performing poorly due to stress.

Government and company policy

Since 2016, France, Italy, and Spain have had legislation in place which grants workers the right not to respond to work-related communications after their core hours and prohibits them being penalised for this. Portugal also passed legislation in November 2021 banning employers from contacting staff outside their contracted working hours, with employers facing sanctions if they text, message, phone or email employees outside their working hours.

Across Australia, steps are being taken to address the prevalence of burnout through improved work-life balance and wellbeing policies, Deloitte Australia introduced a new flexible working policy in June 2021 allowing employees to shape their working day to their individual preference and providing a range of leave choices including wellbeing leave, volunteering leave, cultural holidays and caring leave. Even at government level the way we work is being reviewed. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government’s Standing Committee on Economy and Gender and Economic Equality released a discussion paper on the future of the working week and whether a four-day week is a consideration in 2021.

“If we look at management, we need to divide management into what is appropriate for people that are burning out and those who are actually burnout,” added Prof Parker. “In the burn out stage you still have your elasticity; you can bounce back subject to redressing strategies, de-stressing by having a holiday, time off, exercising, employing the key de-stressing strategies seem to be mindfulness and meditation - they seem to stand out. And that is a useful model if you are burning out. If you are burnt out, as in the flickering flames are no longer there and you are snuffed, you are going to have to rework your work life balance.”

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