Although we’re on the cusp of a new year and we’ve moved on from endless talk of restrictions, social bubbles and isolation, it’s impossible to talk about workplace mental health without recognising how the impact of the pandemic continues to influence how we act and feel about work. As 2022 comes to a close, we need a reality check on handling workplace mental health issues such as burnout.
As organisations compete to attract new employees and showcase how they’ve implemented hybrid working and greater flexibility, we need be frank about the fact that we’re still adjusting to this new way of doing things, and how best to manage our mental health. There are definitely plenty of positives to embrace, but it’s also fair to say that we haven’t fully bounced back from the pandemic.
So, what’s the evidence for this? Recent research from one of our founding charities, Rethink Mental Illness, revealed that over one quarter (29%) of UK workers say their mental health is now worse compared to the start of 2022, ahead of the 24% that say it is better.
Of this group that say their mental health is now worse, 14% have needed to take time off work because of it, while 74% admit to low mood and feeling anxious and/or worried, with 57% respectively saying they’ve experienced difficulty sleeping or having no motivation.
Even more concerning, 14% of those UK workers who say their mental health is worse since January say they have experienced suicidal thoughts, and 8% experienced a mental health crisis which required professional support.
These are really worrying statistics, and remind us that when it comes to workplace mental health we need to keep it at the top of the agenda and keep striving to make sure we create and nurture a culture which promotes and supports peoples’ wellbeing, not give ourselves a pat on the back for a job well done.
The lines between work and home life have become increasingly blurred. A lot of people find themselves working longer hours and constantly juggling childcare commitments, while our means of social interaction and social environments have changed significantly over the last few years. There’s also been a lot of movement across the workforce, with people embracing new opportunities, and all the change and upheaval that can bring.
Factoring in all of that, not to mention the fact that many people have found themselves back on a draining and expensive commute, it’s perhaps not surprising that many people are finding that their mental health is suffering and they’re running on empty, close to burnout.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon”. It can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time.
There is far more awareness of burnout than there used to be, but that shouldn’t undermine the seriousness of it. As prevalent as it is, burnout is often misunderstood, stigmatised, and costly both to employees’ health and wellbeing, and employers’ productivity. Without the right support, burnout can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety, which accounted for 12.8m lost working days in 2018/19.
Common signs of burnout:
- Feeling tired or drained most of the time
- Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
- Feeling detached/alone in the world
- Having a cynical/negative outlook
- Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
- Feeling overwhelmed
We know that increasing numbers of people find themselves at risk of burnout. When Mental Health UK asked people about their experience of burnout during the pandemic, 46% of UK workers said they felt ‘more prone to extreme levels of stress’ compared to the year before (March 2020), while only 15% felt ‘less prone to extreme levels of stress’.
Concerningly, 1 in 5 people told us they felt ‘unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace’.
Gender and age played a role in this prevalence, with women and young people reporting that they felt more prone to extreme stress and pressure at work.
It’s important to acknowledge that burnout isn’t something which goes away on its own. Rather, it can worsen unless you address the underlying issues causing it. If you ignore the signs of burnout, it could cause further harm to your physical and mental health in the future. You could also lose the ability and energy to effectively meet the demands of your job which could have a domino effect on other areas of your life.
The role of the workplace
So how do we counter the risk of burnout and address the reality of the pressures on people’s mental health, and what role does the workplace have to play?
Despite the growing conversation about workplace mental health, it appears the tactics to support colleagues have not reached the high level they need to. Our research found that just 23% of people knew what plans their employers had in place to help spot signs of chronic stress and burnout in employees, and interestingly this statistic didn’t change much during the pandemic, when the spotlight really fell on mental health.
How should employers respond to the current challenges?
Employers really need to seize the initiative. They need to make more effort to communicate with their employees about the support that is available for work-related stress, and to educate their teams about recognising and managing stress and deteriorating mental health in themselves before things become too difficult to manage.
Helpful tools include Wellbeing Plans which can help people identify what good wellbeing looks like for them, as well as what it looks like when things aren’t so good. Sharing these within teams, where people feel safe and comfortable to do so, can help people look out for one another and build stronger teams.
Stress Risk Assessments are another way you can explore stress in yourself and others at work. These work the same way as a regular health and safety risk assessment: you identify a risk, then explore ways of removing or reducing the risk. This could be explored during 1:1s or less formal check-ins.
Leaders also need to consider the example they set to the team, and role model good behaviours. Even when there was nowhere to go during lockdown, annual leave was as important as ever to give people time away from the pressures of work. Now we can benefit from more freedom to enjoy our annual leave and spend it how we wish, there’s really no excuse for not taking time off.
We also will all know someone who ignores the out of office they’ve set to reply to work emails or chip in on a team chat. Not only can this create confusion, but it can also undermine staff morale and people’s self-esteem. Resist the temptation, assert your boundaries and switch your work phone off.
Despite the WHO’s definition of burnout being an occupational hazard, we know that not all the factors that can drive it are explicitly work-related. If companies offer an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) then they should both signpost it and champion it as a broad source of support, as they’re well placed to help people with the factors that can combine with the pressures of work to influence our wellbeing. An EAP can be most effective if referrals are made as soon as an issue is identified.
The Workplace Team at Mental Health UK also offer a range of services designed to support employee Mental Health including facilitated peer support sessions; therapeutic coaching; mental health engagement programmes and mental health training. To find out more please drop us a line at [email protected].
To access free downloadable resources from Mental Health UK, visit:
About Mental Health UK
1 in 4 people in the UK has experienced a mental health problem. Mental Health UK brings together the heritage and experience of four charities from across the country who’ve been supporting people with their mental health for more than 50 years.
We provide support and services for some of the biggest societal challenges that pose a threat to people’s mental health. At Mental Health UK we won’t stop until everyone has the tools they need to live their best possible life.
Mental health now compared to start of 2022: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2073 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 27th – 28th October 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
Mental health and burnout: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2099 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 25th – 26th March 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
Claire joined Mental Health UK in 2021 with over 20 years’ experience in the workplace mental health sector. She has worked as a counsellor, case manager, account manager and business development manager. She has been a member of the Employee Assistance Professional Association UK for 15 years and has spent time on their Board. Claire has supported individual employees and worked closely with Senior Management, Human Resources, Occupational Health professionals, Trade Unions and Health and Safety groups to deliver effective workplace mental health programmes to organisations in a wide range of industry sectors.