Whose Responsibility is Burnout?

When I was approached by TalkRadio in June 2021 to talk about burnout, I took the opportunity to reflect on how companies and their relationship to burnout had progressed over the years. 

Whether we are an employee, a manager, a senior director, an employer of people, an entrepreneur or have a side hustle, it is important for us all to step back and think about who is responsible for what when it comes to preventing burnout.

The company’s problem (up to a point)
Under UK law (enacted in 1974 and 1999), employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. In 2004, the Health and Safety Executive made a considerable amount of guidance and practical steps available to companies to help them comply with their legal duties and responsibility of care.

Whilst this was a good step forwards, in practice it often didn’t do enough to make a real difference. Many organisations put excellent and well meaning company guidelines in place which were intended to be followed, including guidelines for employees being able to flag up when they reaching the limits of their stress capacity. Managers, genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of their team would advise struggling team members to take time out, dial back on their hours or effort, put certain tasks on hold for a while. 

The worker’s problem
But until recently, burnout has still mostly been thought of as the worker’s problem, not the organisation’s. Support measures were brought in to help the individual ‘solve’ their problem, get well and return to the front line (if they’ve had to take time off). Employee assistance counselling, healthcare, relaxation classes, stress assessments, on-site massage, occupational health interviews and such like demonstrated that the employer had done their bit. 

It was also a common experience that when time off was unavoidable due to advanced burnout symptoms leading to an inability to function normally (sometimes known as a ‘nervous breakdown’), that being signed off by a doctor did not guarantee sacrosanct time, and what ought to have been an uninterrupted space to regroup was often punctuated by regular check-ins and requests for estimated return dates, which in themselves frequently caused additional stress and interrupted the healing process. Some of these calls, no doubt, arising from meeting the employer’s legally imposed duty of care. 

The double bind
But in practice – and I have heard this repeatedly from the thousands of clients I have worked with – none of these measures stop the juggernaut of company culture when this culture is a contributing factor to burnout, if not one of the main causes.

There are plenty of decent companies with good employee practices. But, unfortunately, there are all too many with stress-creating cultures.

This could be because in these cases, any top level intention had not been integrated or hardwired into company behaviour. The mission statement can be a lofty ideal that, alas, is all too often not evident in decisions and actions.  The organisation may not be walking their talk. Alternatively, the top team may not have fully taken on board how the constant drive to achievement (or profit), with too few staff covering increasing quantities of work is guaranteed to cause burn out.

So employees end up getting mixed messages – managers being genuinely sympathetic but the company still needing its workloads met. “Take it easier, but we still need you to cover this impossible workload which is causing you to need to take it easier.” 

Some companies appear to bring a ‘burn and churn’ mentality to the ‘wellbeing’ of their workforce. Workers might feel pressured to work late because the company culture defines it as a badge of belonging. Extreme effort, rather than a healthy work-life balance, is what gets taken into account for career progression. Drop by the wayside and there can be little organisational care or compassion, and, seemingly, a preference to replace flagging team members with fresh meat.

Hustle culture
Work and personal life became even more blurred with the rise of ‘hustle culture’. The idea that work should be a 24/7 calling, that everyone should have a side hustle on top of their main job, the social media pressure to constantly show how dedicated and busy people are, with social life becoming another source of busy-ness (plus a significant time pressure too)… 

For a while the very notion of having personal downtime or unplugging became rather old fashioned. 

Officially a syndrome
In May 2019, the World Health Organisation – for the first time – recognised burnout as a workplace syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

This gave burnout more legitimacy. It was no longer the employee being flaky or ‘not up to it’. It was an official syndrome defined by what goes on in the workplace instead of by our personal characteristics. There’s still some way to go, though, as burnout is not a formal medical diagnosis yet.

The next tipping point came with 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic. Being in extended lockdowns, restricted social access, working from home (with reduced access to company facilities), fellow workers on furlough meaning fewer people to cover the work, constant Zoom meetings, home schooling duties plus – for a substantial number of people – relentless pressure to keep work tasks up to date. All this took a huge toll on people’s wellbeing and resilience.

It was also exceptionally challenging times for many businesses, startups and freelancers, whose income or turnover may have been dramatically affected with insufficient financial support and repeated changes in lockdown restrictions making it difficult to plan effectively. 

Over this year, there was a growing realisation that there was more to life than 24/7 work, resulting in a trend towards workers reducing hours, moving to somewhere more rural for better quality of life, or pivoting to an entirely new (and more life affirming) lifestyle.

The new paradigm – “the anti-hustle”
In December 2020 more than 75% of workers in America reported burnout symptoms. That’s a shocking number.

Forward thinking and socially / ethically aware companies started to notice during 2020 just how exhausted their employees were. There was a new realisation that companies needed to do their bit too, with actions and not just words. This has started to lead to a win-win situation, as workers have a better quality of worklife and companies benefit too.

Organisations such as LinkedIn conducted employee surveys from summer 2020 to find out what their employees was needed. They showed increasing signs of burnout, month on month, with such things as the loss of normal decompression time on the daily commute highlighted as one key factor. In response, LinkedIn  introduced a series of hugely popular measures – ‘no meeting’ days, a workshop called the “necessity of no” giving staff the power to turn work down plus other measures.

An increasing number of companies are now understanding that they can make a difference by collectively giving the whole company paid time off, to decompress. Since everyone is off at the same time, the pressure to check emails and complete tasks is instantly removed, and employees have permission to mentally put work down – one of the essential steps introduced in my popular programme Banish Burnout: Reboot Your Resilience and Future Proof Your Life. 

LinkedIn granted one paid week off in April 2021. Staff at Price Waterhouse Coopers were paid $250 to take a week off. Bumble, the female led dating app gave their 700 strong team a  week off with pay in June 2021. Exceptionally, Kate Compton Barr, the  CEO of socially responsible baby product company Pip & Grow, noticed the exhausted expressions of her team on Zoom so in August 2020 gave everyone a whole month off, fully paid. She called this “the anti-hustle”.

A recent survey found that more than one in five companies are now offering their employees more vacation time.  Many employers have established mental health days to encourage employees to unplug, for example at technology giant Cisco.

The future?
At the time of writing, lockdown restrictions are gradually being lifted and questions are being posed about whether a return to full-time office based work is desirable or possible. 

The pandemic has accelerated a paradigm shift in working practices with flexible working likely to become a new norm; a mix of office-based and remote working being a distinct possibility in many companies. 

Whether that will provide the best of both worlds, by reducing the factors that could create burnout, is yet to be seen. Will working from home be a good long-term resilience move? Or will this lead to employees working even harder to compensate for not being as visible to their managers and missing out on essential social bonding? Only time will tell.

One thing worth taking note of is that many employers seem to be willing to listen to realistic proposals for future work arrangements. This could well be a good time to consider what might work best for ourselves and raise it for discussion.