How can flexible working hours address employee burnout?

Need to know:

  • Communication is of high importance to find out what has and has not worked for employees in terms of flexible working.
  • It is imperative to set clear expectations and principles of flexible working so that employees understand where the flexibility lies.
  • It is just as important to provide training and support for line managers to recognise the signs of burnout so they are able to signpost employees towards support.

Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic in 2020 and the rise of remote working, flexible working has become a much-discussed topic.

However, while employers broadly support home working, it can present a false sense of flexibility where some remote working employees feel compelled to work longer hours and not take regular breaks. This can lead to employee burnout, which OC Tanner’s 2021 Global culture report, published in January 2021, found has increased by 15% globally as a result of the pandemic.

Employee support

Employers can offer more support and benefits to employees working flexibly, says Natalie Rogers, chief people officer at Unum. “It’s important to offer employee benefits that include immediate access to a wide range of expertise, guidance and support tools to help people’s health and wellbeing. Access to virtual GPs, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), and early intervention for vocational rehabilitation including both return to work but also stay at work support, will all help employees to acclimatise to hybrid working,” she says.

Mental health of employees is difficult to observe when employees are working remotely. Charles Alberts, Aon’s head of wellbeing solutions in the UK, says that communication is vitally important to find out what has and hasn’t worked, as these conversations can be used to inform a flexible working strategy. “Ask employees how they would like to work. They should not feel guilty for getting up for breaks and should not feel chained to their desk,” he says.

Mental health pathway

In order to reduce burnout, there are various support measures that employers can put in place. Rogers suggests that setting out a mental health pathway is a good start to ensuring that employers have the right measures in place for stress, burnout or any mental health problem.  “Providing wellbeing resources and access to treatment is imperative for employees, but it’s just as important to provide training and support for line managers to equip them with recognising the signs of burnout and ensuring they are able to signpost employees towards support,” she adds.

Regular check-ins with employees working remotely can help monitor wellbeing and give line managers an idea into how staff are feeling. Beingwell life coach Grace McMahon, says: “[Employers can] keep an open line of communication that can be used honestly to discuss any issues or challenges staff are facing, to help manage workloads and prevent burnout. Encouraging employees to offer peer support, creating casual environments to communicate on out-of-work topics, such as book clubs, workout classes, or quiz nights, to boost morale throughout teams, and therefore mood.”

Alberts explains that managing levels of stress and burnout in the workplace is of high importance; burnout is classified as an occupational phenomenon in the World Health Organization (WHO). “The Health and Safety Executive stress risk assessment, made up of 35 evidence-based questions, can help to show the level of stress employees are under and the causes of it. [Employers should] ask how they are twice to really find out how they’re doing, as this shows a genuine interest in employees,” he adds.

Amy Tomlinson, head of HR at Metlife, highlights the importance of looking out for signs of burnout to identify who is struggling, as the tone of emails and the time they are being sent may indicate stressed employees. “It may be an idea to encourage no meetings after 3pm on a Friday to help employees wind down so they can switch off over the weekend. Metlife gives employees fully paid two hours off each month to exercise, meet friends and family or to do something that will help their physical and emotional wellbeing. This has been very well received across the company as employees have basically been given permission to do what they like in terms of their wellness,” she says.

False sense of flexibility

Working from home can often create a false sense of flexibility when the lines between home and professional lives become blurred.

Rogers says: “It is easy for employees and employers to blur the lines but there are some quick wins that employers can adopt. Encourage employees to foster good habits, such as blocking out time for lunch, providing online stretch classes, creating an online chat space, and making sure that leaders do not put meetings in before or after the normal working hours.”

Keeping boundaries clear, communicated and respected will help prevent the lines of work-life balance blurring. “Encourage employees to switch-off after working hours, without checking emails, finishing up late or checking on projects late at night. Having clear boundaries is important, but respecting them is even more so,” says McMahon.

Robert Ordever, managing director of workplace culture expert at OC Tanner Europe, adds: “Of course, the company culture must also support positive working habits and leaders must display the type of behaviours it wants replicating: not responding to emails while on holiday and enjoying an active lifestyle when away from the office, for example.”

Clear expectations of flexible working will help employees understand where the flexibility lies, and promoting and signposting avenues of support can help address burnout.