Why employee burnout must be expected, accepted and supported this winter

The world may have embraced remote working during the past two years, but it’s been a mixed experience for many employees. On the one hand, formerly office-based workers have managed to enjoy the benefits that come with flexibility en masse, choosing where they work and, to some extent, how they work, without the need for long and arduous negotiations with their bosses. Compared to the pre-COVID daily grind, this will have felt like freedom for a lot of employees – at least at first.

Unfortunately, as the pandemic has worn on, more employees have found it difficult separating their professional and personal lives. Working from home can quickly blur the boundaries, and there have been several studies showing that working weeks have become as much as 10% longer since the start of the pandemic. Unlike office-based working, where organisations have clearly defined processes for recording and compensating overtime, few such mechanisms exist in remote work settings.

Not only have people been working for longer, but they’ve also been struggling to switch off, taking little time off and finding themselves ‘living at work’, rather than working from home. The ‘Right to Disconnect’ movement may have gained momentum across Europe in recent years, but most countries are a long way from introducing workable, enforceable systems to protect their workers from the resultant burnout. Consequently, half of UK employers are preparing for burnout to become widespread among employees because of the way the working world has been affected by the pandemic.

The risk is particularly acute as winter approaches, a period in which most people usually spend far more time cooped up in their homes. The question is: what can we do about it?

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Current burnout policies leave a lot to be desired

Burnout has been classified as a disease by the World Health Organisation since 2019. It is described as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

One country that has reflected the WHO’s definition in its employment legislation is Sweden, where the welfare system supports sufferers of ‘clinical burnout’ to the tune of approximately 80% of their salary. In eight other EU countries – Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal and Slovakia – burnout syndrome can be acknowledged as an occupational disease, making it an occupational health issue for any organisation with salaried employees within these territories.

Unfortunately, however, few other countries currently recognise the WHO’s classification. In most places, the UK included, there’s an open question as to whether burnout is covered by standard sick leave provision, whether a doctor’s note is required in order for employees to take a burnout-related sick day, or even whether burnout might come under disability discrimination legislation.

Admittedly, some nations have developed more bespoke approaches to the problem. In New Zealand, employers can offer ‘stress leave’ to employees if they have work-related stress. However, it’s not a legal entitlement, and it’s up to the employer to decide if they provide it or not.

In the Netherlands, ‘emergency leave’ exists to support unforeseen personal circumstances, allowing the employee to take time off without any notice. Employers are obliged to accept reasonable requests and continue paying the employee’s salary during an emergency leave.

These examples are the exceptions. In general, there are very few burnout- or wellbeing-specific support policies mandated by local jurisdictions.

Employers, not policymakers, are leading the way

There seems, however, to be a cultural shift in several territories, where it’s the local employers that are proactively addressing the problem and providing better support for their staff.

In Australia, wellness leave and other related benefits are slowly starting to become culturally accepted norms. Financial services firm Westpac gives staff five days of wellbeing leave each year on top of their annual leave. Unilever has introduced “doona days” – a Friday off for staff to do whatever they need to rejuvenate. HSBC Australia also allows employees’ one ‘wellness day’ off per year.

There’s evidence that the same trend may now be occurring in both the US and UK. In June, dating app Bumble gave 700 staff an unexpected week off to combat workplace stress. Later in the summer, Nike closed down its corporate HQ for a week with the message to its employees: “Take the time to unwind, destress and spend time with your loved ones. Do not work.” The Scottish Government, meanwhile, is committed to trialling a four-day working week to assess its impact on staff wellbeing.

This brings an important consideration for global employers with salaried remote employees, who will need to pay attention to such local specifics. For example, as a financial services provider looking to hire in Australia, a failure to offer wellbeing leave could put you at a distinct disadvantage when prospective candidates are considering whether to go to you or a competitor.

One thing we are doing in Boundless to mitigate burnout, is mandating company wide days off. Once a quarter, regardless of what is happening, we take a Friday off so everyone can have a rest without worrying if they are missing something important or their input is needed.

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Burnt out employees won’t hang around for long

All businesses must be mindful of the problem of employee burnout. According to one recent poll, 57% of employers claim that the issue is affecting turnover, retention and productivity. Another survey found that seven out of 10 workers would be willing to move jobs to try and reduce the likelihood of burnout.

Across a number of leading economies, the summer of 2021 saw worker resignations reach record levels. Failure to address the burnout question in the months ahead and we could be in for a further wave of resignations early into the new year.

Organisations should consider that, according to Deloitte, for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they get back £5 in reduced absence, presenteeism, and staff turnover. Our advice to progressive organisations is to look around for local examples of best-practice wellbeing support as well as burnout paid time off and apply them across every market in which they employ people.

Legal obligations must always be met, wherever you operate. But now might be the right moment to start handpicking a broader range of wellbeing initiatives that you can roll out to everyone, everywhere. Burnout is, after all, a borderless issue.

Written by Emily Castles, co-founder and CTO at Boundless

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