Burnout and work-related stress is on the rise in the UK

Ahead of National Stress Awareness Day on November 4th, health experts advise on how to prepare for a spike in workplace burnout

Workplace burnout symptoms increased for 24% of the UK’s employees in 2020, and health experts are predicting a ‘burnout spike’ in January 2021, according to new research.

The study into Google’s search data revealed a 24% spike in 2020 in searches online for terms such as ‘signs of burnout’, compared to last year.  Last winter saw a record high January ‘burnout spike’, traditionally associated with low mood, depression and demotivation in employees, and experts believe this will be even greater in January 2021 due to COVID-19.

In recent years, there’s been a consistent increase in searches for symptoms of burnout. Google search data highlights a gradual increase in the volume of searches for ‘signs of burnout’ over the last four years, culminating in a notable spike in January 2020. On average, total searches have increased by 41% annually since 2017.

Global online searches for the term ‘occupational burnout’ have increased by more than 2,500% since 2015, and the COVID-19 pandemic is fuelling an even faster rise in work-related mental health issues.

Richard Holmes, Director of Wellbeing at Westfield Health, explains: “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Pressure at work is usually the main culprit, and when budgets are tight, and teams are small, people often find themselves with multiple roles and heavy workloads, piling on the stress.

“Policies like turning off email servers outside of working hours helps ring-fence valuable recovery time. Mental health first aid training can also help managers spot the signs or triggers and put preventions in place.

“Contractors or freelancers who don’t have the support of HR might need to adopt their strategies such as setting working hours, turning off email alerts out of these hours and separating work and living space if working from home.”

What can you do?

Employers don’t have a clear understanding of burnout, says Angela Knox, Director of workplace employee wellbeing programme Keep Fit Eat Fit.

She adds: “Recognising burnout or stress in employees is a vital part of a manager’s work and one which sadly often gets overlooked. If employers have systems in place that are designed for monitoring employees, then problems can be identified and dealt with before they escalate. 

“Opportunities to intervene can easily be missed.  In larger companies with higher headcounts, it’s a good idea for the head of HR to have eyes and ears in the various departments so that they can keep track of any key developments or problems before they occur.”

Following the disruption of people’s working and personal lives due to coronavirus, HR teams are warned that this spike is expected to be worse in January 2021. Additional support will be needed for stress this winter to maintain employees’ mental health and productivity.

There are plenty of steps that people can take to reduce stress and the risk of burnout, and employers can proactively encourage these among their employees.

  • Encourage regular exercise. Even a short 10-minute walk can have an impact on mood and motivation; it doesn’t have to be a 10-mile run. Getting away from the desk to exercise in the fresh air has a direct link to increased productivity.
  • Ensure employees don’t sit at their desks for too long. Humans aren’t made to sit for long periods, and a five-minute desk break every hour reduces the risk of injury, refocuses the mind and helps break the monotony of both home and office working – even if it’s just a walk to the kitchen for a cup of tea.
  • Encourage quitting unhealthy habits. Poor diet and excessive drinking both have a major impact on a person’s stress levels, as does smoking. In fact, a recent study found that quitting smoking made immediate positive improvements to mental health, especially after the first four weeks.
  • Make sure people talk to their line manager. Communication is what prevents those initial feelings of pressure, anxiety or demotivation from becoming mental health problems like burnout. The sooner an employer is aware of the problem, the sooner they can do something about it.
  • Set up routine catch-ups with the team. With employees now working from home, it’s important to keep lines of communication open to keep the social aspect of work. This reduces the feeling of isolation and has a positive impact on wellbeing.
  • Promote mental health days. Fostering a workplace culture where people don’t feel guilty for occasionally taking the day off sick will help alleviate longer-term stress and maintain morale.
  • Push annual leave. Employees should be encouraged to use their holiday allowance each year, even if they’re not going away anywhere. This fosters a healthier work environment and creates a better work-life balance that benefits everybody
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