Is spying on your employees the answer to preventing burnout?

Reports suggest a huge increase in sales of computer surveillance software in the UK since lockdown began. The kind of thing that monitors every key that’s pressed or takes screenshots of the employee’s computer at regular intervals. You could view this as employers going full Orwell. But the software producers would argue that it helps employers identify those who overwork, assess why it’s happening, and provide – via the same software – time implementation tools. Of course, ensuring your employees viewed it in this light would require some very careful communication.

While the jury’s out on surveillance software, what we do know for sure is that when work-related stress is left unchecked, there’s a very real risk of burnout. As of last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) deemed burnout a classifiable workplace phenomenon. It’s a risk that has increased since the Covid-19 crisis began, says Emily Tims, Senior Physiotherapist at Vitality360, speaking as part of a recent burnout webinar, hosted in partnership with Generali UK. “The pandemic is a huge cause of stress to many, so there’s an increased risk of burnout and fatigue, particularly among: people with school age children; anyone living with – or apart from – a vulnerable loved one; if a close friend or family member is admitted to hospital; anyone on their own; or experiencing significant financial issues.

“It’s important that employers take action now to improve the overall wellbeing of their people and prevent persistent symptoms of fatigue.”

What is burnout?

According to the WHO, burnout is a state of persistent stress, that leads to:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Those in the midst of burnout are simply unable to function on a personal or a professional level.

Legal implications

Vanessa Latham, Partner at employment law firm BLM, doesn’t expect the new classification of burnout to significantly change how employment law related cases are decided: “Although burnout was included as a factor influencing health [by the WHO], it wasn’t classified as a medical condition.”

She says that the only change likely is employees with grievances arguing that the signs of burnout, as listed above, were obvious to the employer and it triggers an obligation on the employer to take steps to prevent injury occurring. “That remains to be seen and as defendants we will argue that it [burnout per se] is not sufficient. In negligence claims, claimants are required to prove psychiatric illness – so proving burnout will not be sufficient for the claim to be successful.

“However, it would be wise for employers to be alert to the issues associated with burnout and take supportive action if they see the signs.”

What causes it?

Management practices are key for preventing burnout, as evidenced by the findings of a 2018 Gallup Report, which found that employees with enough time to do their work were 70% less likely to suffer high burnout. It found the following main causes of burnout:

  • Unreasonable time pressure.
  • Lack of communication & support from managers.
  • Lack of role clarity.
  • Unmanageable workload.
  • Unfair treatment at work.

Obviously, managers are a little removed from employees right now. But instilling the right culture – treating people with empathy and respect – can be done just as well remotely.

What employers need to do

But how do you identify there’s even a problem when your employees are in lockdown and remote working? The answer is to nurture a culture of wellbeing and self-care. And this can be done just as well remotely.

  • Ensure management standards support the ability of people to manage their own workloads.
  • Nurture an atmosphere of disclosure so that any concerns are raised to line managers, allowing for adjustments to be made if required.
  • Managers must lead by example – for example, don’t mute the kids during a conference call, and if certain times don’t work around family commitments say so.
  • Make it clear when employees are expected to answer emails – this shouldn’t be out of normal work hours and especially not at weekends.
  • Encourage regular breaks – away from all technology, including the phone.

Tims adds: “At Vitality360, we have an optional weekly meeting called the 20-minute care space, where employees can express their feelings and any difficulties they may be having. This has really helped my wellbeing.”

Katherine Sewell, Business Support Manager at Vitality360, adds: “To help ensure I have breaks, I use an app called Little Nudge. It reminds you to do certain activities throughout the day according to your objectives – for example, improving concentration, boosting energy, preventing headaches.”

What employees need to do

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Vitality360i provides the following guidelines:

  • Ensure good sleep habits: have a wind-down routine before bed; dark room; no evening caffeine, alcohol or exercise; minimise technology in the evening; minimise naps and lie-ins.
  • Balance rest and activity: identify your triggers – such as pushing ahead with work when you might be too tired – and set yourself ground rules; implement new routines that include effective rest, such as a 5-minute break every hour; ensure time for something completely different to work – anything from meditation and relaxation to listening to music or going for a walk.
  • Include physical activity: boosts mood; improves sleep, concentration, wellbeing, immune system, disease risk. Make a plan to ensure it’s easy to fit in to life and keep it consistent. UK physical activity guidelines were updated by the Department of Health and Social Care last year and as well as the usual 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise, there’s now more emphasis on strength training as part of the weekly routine, along with breaking up periods of inactivity.

i Insights taken from a webinar on fatigue and burnout hosted by Generali UK in partnership with their wellbeing partner Vitality360, a team of multidisciplinary professionals, specialising in rehabilitation for people with persistent physical symptoms, such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. To access a recording of the webinar, click here.