Last reviewed: 7 October 2021
- What is burnout?
- Who is most at risk?
- Signs and symptoms
- Suggested adjustments and preventative measures
- Further information
All of us can be at risk of burnout, but during the COVID-19 pandemic we know that the risk increased for some groups. This is partly due to the nature of the jobs these individuals have and the sudden and prolonged impact of the pandemic.
Many of those at increased risk work in very specialist roles that require many years of training, so providing extra resources and support has been very difficult. The pandemic has also seen people work much longer hours and take on additional duties to ensure that vital services continue and goods reach their destinations.
This resource focuses on how COVID-19 is potentially impacting these higher-risk groups rather than burnout more generally.
What is burnout?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ caused by ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ Burnout is not recognised as a medical condition.
What causes burnout?
Since the term ‘burnout’ was first recognised in the 1970s, it has been linked to various common risk factors. It is no coincidence that these are included in the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Stress Management Standards:
- Demand (workload, work patterns, work environment)
- Control (including autonomy at work)
- Support and being part of a team
- Relationships (including being treated fairly and with respect)
- Recognition and reward
- Values (being able to align personal values and behaviours with those of an employer).
Who is most at risk?
The nature of COVID-19 means that certain professions and sectors have borne the brunt of its impact more than others. Healthcare and social care staff, both in hospital settings and in the community, have been hit especially hard. Many employees working there are exhausted and traumatised by their experiences. In addition, many have also had to endure frustration, abuse, personal illness and bereavements. There has also been the need for many people to work extra hours to cover for absent colleagues.
Other professions have also been directly affected by COVID-19 and are at increased risk of burnout. These include managers, senior business leaders, politicians, backroom support staff, and scientists. Others often affected include people in the food industry, utilities, public transport, and essential services such as other emergency services, refuse collectors, charity staff, and shop assistants.
For many people with pre-existing health conditions or disabilities, work often presented more barriers than those without these extra challenges. The turmoil caused by the virus will have eased the pressure for some but created more barriers and risks for others.
Signs and symptoms
Burnout can affect both physical and mental health. The WHO identified three main features that a person with burnout might experience:
- Being mentally and / or physically exhausted.
- Having negative feelings towards their work such as feeling dread at the thought of it, detachment from it, demotivated, disillusioned or cynical.
- Feeling less efficient.
- Feeling unable to do the work as well as expected or they would like.
Burnout does not just affect a person while they are at work. It can quickly affect every part of their lives and impact their families too.
Untreated burnout can lead to severe physical and mental health problems such as:
- heart disease
- dependence on alcohol or drugs
- anxiety and depression.
These can lead to more health problems and prolonged absences.
Some employees may take time off as they cannot face coming into work. They may make mistakes they usually wouldn’t, be irritable, or be distracted. Deadlines may be missed. Some people may even choose to leave their jobs.
The fatigue associated with burnout is a serious risk factor for accidents, for example, misdiagnosis, drug or surgical errors in healthcare. For HGV and delivery drivers, the risk of road accidents increases due to fatigue or distraction. The HSE states that fatigue is responsible for 20 per cent of accidents on major roads.
Investigations found that fatigue was a significant contributory factor in the following disasters:
- Chernobyl nuclear explosion
- Clapham Junction train crash
- The sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise
- Texas City explosion.
For customers with burnout, they may miss deadlines for returning information to you, be less patient or maybe even aggressive towards your staff, or miss meetings and appointments. This can make for even more stress for all involved and exacerbate an already difficult situation.
Suggested adjustments and preventative measures
There is a never-ending list of possible adjustments and preventative measures. Below are just a few you may wish to consider:
- Listen to what employees are saying. What are their challenges, what are they suggesting will help or is helping?
- Ensure that staff know how and where to quickly and easily get support.
- Advise them of any changes as soon as possible in an easy way for them to access.
- All communication should be easily accessible to all staff. There will be individuals who are not fluent in English or have disabilities such as dyslexia, hearing loss or sight loss.
- Encourage communication and team events. Good peer support is recognised as a good form of protection against burnout.
- Train all staff to understand the real risks associated with burnout, know its early signs, and encourage them to act on them promptly.
- Training should also empower employees to recognise it in others, including their customers.
Stress risk assessments
- Carry out stress risk assessments as these include the leading causes of burnout.
- Stress risk assessments can be a valuable tool to measure if burnout is a risk, the key issues, and the effectiveness of any measures taken.
Regularly review workloads and work patterns
- Check that employees are not working excessive hours and becoming overly fatigued.
- Plan for the long run. Some employees will volunteer for far more than they are realistically able to take on. This can be for various reasons, including trying to support their tired colleagues. Be prepared to say ‘no’ so that you can protect them in the longer term.
- Encourage employees to take their annual leave so that they can switch off from work and recharge.
- Reduce unscheduled changes to shifts and work tasks. Frequent and sudden change is stressful for most people but is especially so for some individuals who have disabilities.
- Employees should have some say in when they take breaks, holidays, and how they manage their work and workload.
- All employees should be encouraged to say ‘no’ to extra hours, shifts or changes. They are best placed to know how tired they are becoming and if they have non-work commitments have.
Recognition, reward, and support
- Publicly and personally recognise the extras employees and teams are putting in. Recognition can go a long way towards feeling valued even if no practical resources can be found to support the individuals immediately.
- It is important to recognise that employees will still have stressors in their lives outside of work. These may or may not be COVID-related but will impact how well someone can do their job without burning out.
- There will also be people who have existing, or develop, health conditions and disabilities during this time. The importance of reasonable adjustments for these individuals cannot be underestimated.
- Encourage staff to follow healthy lifestyles in their diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management during their working day if possible.
For more information on suggested adjustments, specific barriers for COVID-19, mental health topics and information about the law, please see our other resources in the Knowledge Hub.
- For more information about mental health, see our Mental Health Toolkit.
- For advice about COVID-19, see our COVID-19 Toolkit.
For more detailed information and advice about a specific situation, contact the Advice Service:
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