Does hybrid work raise the risk of burnout at your organisation?

'In remote situations, sometimes people feel the need to work harder because managers don’t have as much insight into what they do,' says academic

Does hybrid work raise the risk of burnout at your organisation?

Recently, a former Noel Leeming employee was awarded over $30,000 after leaving the organisation due to burnout.

Hired as a salesperson in 2019, his employment ended in 2021 but he claimed that he was constructively dismissed. According to the employee, there were several unjustified disadvantages that led to him suffering from burnout.

Employees’ mental health is, of course, a concerning issue.

And HR should be aware that burnout may be on the rise as a result of greater hybrid working, according to Professor Katharina Näswall of the University of Canterbury.

“The increased visibility of burnout as an issue may partly be because of a more general focus on wellbeing within organisations but it could also be because the pace of work has gone up, especially with hybrid work,” says Näswall, who is director of the Master’s of Science programme in Industrial and Organisational Psychology at the University of Canterbury.

In remote situations, she says, since people's performance is less visible, sometimes they feel the need to work to harder because managers don’t have as much insight into what they do.   

Burnout: extreme reaction

“Burnout is an extreme reaction to an unsustainable environment,” says Näswall. “The increased burnout risks that potentially arise with remote working could be caused by employees overworking to make sure they’re seen to be doing enough, combined with the fact that managers aren't around in the same space to identify once someone’s work is good enough already.

“In these situations, managers can’t see the hours people are putting in, feedback may be reduced, and in some cases the boundaries of work might not be as clear, resulting in overtime going unnoticed by managers.”

Näswall knows of cases where employees have been off work for up to a year due to burnout.

“They may come back part-time and might struggle to withstand stressors they used to be able to take before. It's a serious issue and can be quite traumatic.”

According to the International Classification of Diseases, this is both a mental and physiological state where the body's stress response has been depleted to a stage where we're no longer able to mobilize when we experience stressors, he says.

“It's actually a physiological response to prolonged stress, which is very debilitating and can be dangerous.”

Employee burnout signs

For managers to spot the signs, Näswall emphasises the need for HR to equip them with the tools, which in the case of remote workers is all the more challenging.

“Things to watch out for are behavioural changes like lack of enthusiasm, more cynicism, irritation with clients, or withdrawal. Loss of confidence and self-criticism and a decrease in performance are also typical signs, regardless of whether it's a hybrid or office situation.

“If you tend to see somebody less that could be a sign they're struggling – and although it might not be burnout, it might be a pre-stage.”

She acknowledges it’s harder to detect when a manager’s not in the same place, so in hybrid situations, regular check-ins are even more vital.

“I would say a really important part of detecting this is to really know your staff so that you can spot signs early on. It’s vital managers really understand the value of these catch-ups too.

“It’s important managers know what’s going on at work for team members, understand what they’re interested in with their work, what they’re up against, how the team is functioning and its dynamics.”

HR’s role in equipping managers

HR leaders play a vital role in educating managers to manage this, she says. To begin with this could focus on what the signs are, but also emphasising that rather than burnout being about something wrong with the person impacted, it is actually about the workplace, and that it’s therefore something managers and HR can directly influence.

“It's not about the person doing something wrong, it’s about the workplace,” stresses Näswall. “Most importantly, there needs to be communication, clear goals and resources to reach those goals, manageable workloads and fairness in work distribution because feeling unfairly overloaded is one of the causes of burnout.”

Organisations that promote psychologically healthy workplaces are better placed to help avoid burnout and in general benefit from better employee performance, she says. 

“Someone suffering from burnout would likely need time off, but once they’re ready to return, it's really important to properly diagnose what led to the situation. This doesn’t mean just looking at the person and saying, ‘Oh, they're a perfectionist, they work too much’ it’s more about how things are managed. This means looking at the organisational factors that might exacerbate the symptoms and helping the person with clear boundaries so they’re not over-working.”

Costs of burnout

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers are liable to prevent risks to mental health, stresses Näswall, emphasising that the costs to organisations that don’t address burnout risks are significant.

“Reduced productivity is just one of the consequences,” she says. “It’s important to remember that it's not just one person who's burnt out that creates a productivity loss because it's likely that if you don't work towards a psychologically healthy workplace, you're probably not getting the best out of most people.

“There’s also the reputational risks, both in terms of hiring new staff but also the impact on clients, not to mention the loss of benefits that retention gives in terms of avoiding the cost of re-hiring, the loss of institutional memory and a potential impact on innovation and creativity.”

Recent articles & video

Crown solicitor's behaviour leaves staff 'genuinely distressed'

'Bullied' manager wins over $130k against former employer

Employers told to put premium on proper job evaluation methods

What are people’s biggest regrets about their careers?

Most Read Articles

Half of laid-off New Zealand employees find new jobs 'immediately': report

Recent case highlights need to address bullying in the workplace

New Zealand to hike median wage rate to $31.61 an hour