How can employers help staff avoid burnout while managing productivity?

  • Burnout symptoms include increased frustration and irritability, indifference towards work, being withdrawn and tearful, higher levels of absence, and less inclination to learn and develop.
  • Having regular conversations about mental health with employees, understanding more about the reasons behind burnout, and highlighting what support is available, is key.
  • A workforce with stronger mental resilience is more likely to have greater productivity and reduced sick leave.

There are a variety of issues that can put a strain on employee wellbeing, such as the current economic and political environment, and this strain can result in burnout or fatigue.

These issues usually occur when employees have exhausted their physical or emotional strength, often due to prolonged stress or frustration. Symptoms include increased frustration and irritability, indifference towards work, being withdrawn and tearful, higher levels of absence, and less inclination to learn and develop.

While employers should be looking out for early warning signs and training their workforce to spot symptoms, they might also want to consider the best way to manage productivity alongside this.

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Mental health and productivity

Research from Group Risk Development (GRiD) published in January 2023 shows that although 85% of employers record the sickness absence of their staff, only 63% measure the impact that leave has on their business.

Emma Capper, UK wellbeing leader at Howden Employee Wellbeing and Benefits, explains that according to the Health and Safety Executive’s report Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, published in November 2022, 17 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22.

“The pandemic raised stress levels for many people and now the cost-of-living crisis is adding additional pressure,” she says.

“It can be a fine balance between keeping productivity high while at the same time avoiding employee burnout. Having a workforce that is physically and mentally well is essential for performance. If employees are struggling with burnout, this could lead to extended sick leave and low morale, which will most certainly affect productivity.

“Being able to spot employees who are suffering from poor mental health and putting the right interventions in place early is essential to prevent issues from escalating.”

Some organisations have heavier workloads because of external factors such as global economic shifts, which can often result in annual leave being perceived as less of a priority. One way to support the mental health of affected employees is to encourage them to take time off and, on a day-to-day basis, ensure they take breaks at regular intervals.

Nicholas Wodtke, founder and chief executive officer of Nutrable, states that this can prevent greater lapses in productivity down the line, as when employees become exhausted and stressed, unplanned time off work is inevitable.

“It is essential for businesses to remain productive and profitable, but without a healthy and thriving workforce, productivity will lag,” he says.

“One of the obvious tell-tale signs is absenteeism. This has a negative impact on a business’ requirement to remain productive and profitable.”

For a mental health strategy to be effective, it is vital employers understand which issues need to be addressed, implement strategies to improve employee wellbeing, and measure the impacts and outcomes. Measuring the value of a mental health strategy through its return to the business can be an indicator of its effectiveness and can allow employers to see if productivity is affected by its introduction.

Organisations should work to ensure a top-down culture that accepts mental wellbeing as important as physical or financial wellbeing, says Lucie McGrath, director of health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson.

She continues: “Managers are not immune to mental health challenges, and it is important to ensure there is cultural alignment relating to the mental health needs of employees and their manager.

“If managers are not engaged with wellbeing or feel uncomfortable talking about mental health challenges with their team, this will have a detrimental impact on the overall strategy.”

Spotting the symptoms

Cigna Europe’s 360 wellbeing survey, published in June 2022, found that 97% of 18 to 34-year-olds have experienced symptoms of burnout, and 25% struggle to cope with stress.

Employers should look for the cause of these issues, points out Dr Anne Lepetit, medical director at Cigna Europe.

“They should enable their employees to feel comfortable talking about their mental health despite the stigma that still surrounds the topic, and not fear the consequences of speaking up,” she says.

“They should also be trained to detect burnout symptoms and offer different solutions depending on what’s needed. Burnout can be countered by regularly setting aside time to catch up with staff, highlighting those who have been productive and improved so they feel recognised for their efforts.

“Employers should remember that a person is wider than the work they produce when considering productivity.”

Having regular conversations about mental health with employees, understanding the reasons behind burnout and highlighting what support is available is key. Staff may need short-term, long-term or crisis support depending on their issues.

Employee resource groups purely focused on mental health could create a safe space for people to talk and share their personal experiences in dealing with their own wellbeing, suggests Styles, adding that employers should encourage teams to schedule regular catch-ups to check progress and highlight blockers.

“In the era of distributed working, face-to-face contact has fallen by the wayside, so it’s important that calls are scheduled so that people can make roadblocks visible,” he adds.

“Ensure team leaders set clear priorities and goals for team members at the start of the week. Instead of letting people work through an endless to-do list, get them to highlight their focus for that week to help them balance their workload and set realistic expectations.”

Many employers are also training staff to become mental health first aiders to offer practical support and advice for employees, comments Capper, believing implementing wellbeing action plans to also be useful.

“Making reasonable adjustments at work for an employee suffering with their mental health is important and employees have a legal right to ask for changes to be made to their job or workplace,” she says.

“Simple changes such as working from home, supporting them with tips on managing their workload or taking more breaks could really help. Organisations should also make use of free services as there is a wealth of information readily available. Mental health charity Mind has free resources, which can be shared with managers and employees.”

Benefits to prevent burnout

A workforce with stronger mental wellbeing is more likely to have greater levels of productivity, and reduced instances of burnout and sickness absence. Employers should offer a comprehensive suite of benefits to cover the full spectrum of mental health conditions at an individual level, including critical illness, private medical insurance (PMI) and group income protection policies, which often offer some form of mental health assistance.

Most employers also offer employee assistance programmes (EAPs) along with telephone and face-to-face counselling to support physical, mental and financial wellbeing.

Flexible working in the form of hybrid, part-time, flexi-time or condensed hours is also a useful tool to support a better work-life balance, says Capper.

She adds: “Introducing sessions at work such as mindfulness, massages or stress management techniques can also be useful; along with offering discounted gym membership and encouraging lunchtime walks or organisation-wide fitness challenges to support teamwork and collaboration, and provide a break from their desk.”

Lepetit agrees that physical exercise should be encouraged as it is a key element to both mental and physical health, and in turn the ability to remain resilient during difficult or high pressure periods.

“Employers may want to consider promoting exercise and offer their workforce opportunities to do this throughout, before or after their working day at home or at facilities,” she says.

“Making time for this and promoting it highlights [the employer’s] commitment to staff wellbeing. It also increases productivity and is not expensive to do.”

Specialised health platforms can be an alternative form of support, offering ways to improve nutrition and lifestyle through access to one-to-one consultations with a nutritional therapist and personalised health plans.

If employers want to introduce benefits to help with or prevent burnout, while maintaining productivity, they might want to use absence and health claims data and insights from their organisation to find out what is driving key mental wellbeing trends that emerge. This can ensure the benefits deliver value for everyone.

Sometimes an employer’s only requirement is to identify what they have in place, understand provision overlaps and gaps, and to ensure services and support are easy for employees to access.