We’ve all felt stressed and overwhelmed at work. We live in an always-on society, with constant emails, text and push notifications alongside the pressure of meeting deadlines and delivering on expectations forces us to work harder, faster and smarter. It is this frantic pace and pressure that can lead us to ‘burnout’, a concept that has become topical in recent years, yet few of us fully understand. Feelings of energy depletion, negativity and reduced job competence are all common symptoms that can have a knock-on effect of the individual’s mental health. We as employers, have a obligation to look out for the wellbeing of our workers, and have to consider whether burnout may be a trigger for depression – a more serious mental health issue.
So, the question is, how do we spot burnout? Can burnout lead to depression, and is there anything we can do to prevent it? As employers, what are our responsibilities to employee mental health?
What Causes Burnout?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently changed its definition of burnout, reclassifying it as an occupational syndrome and very much a serious health issue. The World Health Organisation’s new definition states:
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
So, burnout is caused by a particular type of work-related stress resulting in physical or emotional exhaustion and a sense of reduced job competency. Work-related stress can be triggered by a variety of factors:
- Lack of control – not being able to influence job-related decisions or assign adequate resources.
- Unclear expectations – not fully understanding what others expect.
- Flawed workplace dynamics – being bullied, undermined or micromanaged.
- Extremes of activity – monotony or chaos leading to fatigue.
- Absence of social support – feeling isolated amongst colleagues.
- Work-life imbalance – too much time spent working and not enough with family.
While reclassified as an occupational syndrome, burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, but it is a mental health issue that should be taken seriously. So, as employers, how do we spot the signs before they spiral?
What Are the Signs of Burnout and Depression?
While they are very much different beasts, the signs of burnout and depression are, in fact, quite similar. Symptoms include issues with concentration, memory, sleeping and exhaustion. These symptoms will then proliferate in the workplace in the form of cynicism, irritation and reduced productivity. Ultimately, someone suffering from burnout or depression won’t seem themselves. And this impacts upon the business. If your employees reach work-related burnout, they will achieve less, make more mistakes and be irritable.
What is the Difference between Burnout and Depression
While symptoms may seem similar, the first difference between burnout and depression is the area of life that the symptoms effect. Burnout is generally work-related and, while it can impact upon relationships outside of work, that is more typical of depression. Burnout tends to develop from a work-related situation and limit itself to that area of our lives. Depression is much more general; it can develop across different parts of our lives and can have both a quick and significant influence.
To ensure the health of our employees, it’s vital to know the difference between burnout and depression. With burnout, as the problems are predominantly work-related, they can be resolved with adequate adjustments and support. Depression, however, is more serious and will require immediate action.
While both are different mental health issues, burnout and depression are definitely linked and sit on a sliding scale. If we don’t do enough to help our employees avoid or recover from burnout, it may very well contribute to more serious mental health issues down the line.
How Can We Manage Workplace Burnout?
If we fail to address workplace burnout, it can result in any number of outcomes. Employee health and safety will suffer, and your businesses will be affected by an increased risk of accidents, absenteeism and decreased productivity. Prevention strategies are vital if we are to manage workplace burnout and look after the mental of our employees.
To help to reduce the risk of workplace burnout, we can:
- Provide clear and reasonable expectations
- Allocate adequate resources
- Encourage regular breaks away from the workplace
- Provide ongoing training
- Make employees feel recognised and valued
- Support physical activity during the workday
- Enforce reasonable working hours
- Continually assess workload
- Encourage social support and respect
The majority of employees suffering from burnout will stay at work and will deny the problem. To support employee mental health, we should be looking out for changes in attitudes and energy that can be early signs of a problem.
While it is easy to assume some of our workers have just developed a poor attitude or loss of motivation, we should ask ourselves if the problem runs deeper. Unaddressed burnout can increase the chance of developing a clinical condition such as depression or other serious mental health issues. We should help our employees recognise if they have a problem and should support their recovery. After all, workplace health and safety is so much more than avoiding trips and falls; our mental health is a vital piece of the puzzle.