What can you do to prevent employee burnout? 

Middle aged man working from home in front of lots of screens holding mobile phone

As many employees returned to work full-time or on a hybrid basis, and adapted to a ‘new normal’ post-Covid work life, levels of employee burnout were anticipated to decrease.

Burnout, a consequence of accumulative and long-term workplace stress, remains a serious concern for many employees and their organisations. Working from home during lockdown understandably affected stress levels, as people struggled to find a balance between their work and private life; but far from declining after office or hybrid working life resumed, reports are still showing similar burnout rates.

This issue highlights some important questions around the persistence of burnout, and what businesses can do to nurture their workforce’s mental wellbeing. How can employers ensure their people are fully supported, and that their company’s health and wellbeing provisions are providing the necessary cover?

The precise figures of burn out vary across reports, but the story is consistent, burn out levels continue to impact businesses. For example, a recent study by Glassdoor’s economic researchers revealed that reports of burnout among British workers increased by 48% to record levels over the year to mid-2022. In part, this reflects the changing economic climate of the past year as many workers, particularly those in lower income groups, continue to face growing financial insecurity. Household and mortgage bills have soared over the past year as inflation and rising interest rates have bitten, while at the same time employers are trimming employee numbers to try and contain costs, simultaneously pushing more workload onto remaining employees. Consequently, perceived job insecurity in such a climate, may make employees persevere despite increased workloads.

The persistence of burnout rates also reflects the different ways that the shift in working habits has affected workers. While many employees found the WFH experience a stressful and difficult one, and were relieved to get back to the workplace, others thrived on the flexibility and additional family time they enjoyed at home. Consequently, the return to commuting, and may have added to existing stress levels, as burn out levels in hybrid workers are almost double to those who work fully remote. As such, employees may find it challenging to disconnect from the hybrid work model, as managing the blurred boundaries between work and home life can be difficult and lead to increased stress and anxiety. Moreover, burnout rates also tend to be higher among women due to job-related factors and the effects of gender on career advancement.

So, what can organisations do to help counter burnout?

Mercer’s latest Health on Demand report shows that providing the best health and well-being support for employees is vital. Similarly, it highlights that flexible working arrangements are now the single most highly valued employer policy, helping people to manage stress and in the process boosting retention levels, promoting creativity and trust, and conveying the message that the leadership has a genuine interest in its employees’ wellbeing. However, as industries begin to restrict flexible working arrangements in the post-pandemic landscape, support for mental health will be harder to maintain. 

Utilisation of employee benefits offerings also appear to be under utilised.  One of the factors is often miscommunication, whereby many companies may have benefits in place to help employees struggling with burnout and other mental ill health issues, but that employees may be unaware they exist or understand how to access them. For instance, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), through which employees can speak to an online GP or psychologist, are offered by more than 70% of businesses in the UK. However, the average take-up rate is very low, whereby typically less than 5% of employees will access their company’s EAP each year.

A further headwind to effective burnout support is the fact that although many businesses offer their managers mental health training, less than 15% of managers in the UK have received training. From their perspective, it might be another job to add to the mountain already on their desk – especially as it requires making focused and quality time for employees, at a time when they themselves may well also be suffering from burnout. Whereas, a broader approach, which aims to reach all employees, could have a greater impact in relieving the impact of burn out on the entire workforce.

Some steps that organisations could put in place to ease these pressures include:

  1. Ensure employees have flexible options - and that their take-up is not seen as counterproductive in in terms of career or workload.
  2. Improve communication with employees around benefits, especially EAPs and related resources. Employee listening and behaviour change guided research can help identify barriers that may be limiting access to available services and offerings.
  3. Provide mental health awareness training for all employees. Training should not only be targeted to managers. All employees need to understand the signs of burnout and learn vital self-care and resiliency skills to prevent it.

If you want to know more about preventative approaches to mental ill health, employee listening services, and behaviour change interventions, contact your Mercer consultant or the Workplace Health Consulting team.

Elif Oflaz

Associate Consultant, Mercer Marsh Benefits

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