In January, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern announced she was resigning as prime minister because she no longer had “enough in the tank” to lead after six turbulent years in power. Ardern admitted that leading the nation through the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis had taken its toll – a feeling most of us are familiar with, says Kate Cleminson, Human Resources Director at Healix.

The shock announcement was met with a wave of support, in part because she helped normalise an issue that many struggle to admit has a huge effect on their professional and personal life. Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a psychologist and the author of Burnout In The Workplace, even praised the former PM, saying it was “unfortunate” that more leaders did not follow her example and open up.

But the bottling up of burnout and stress is not just something world leaders do – it can be a major issue in the workplace as well.

While we can only hope Ardern’s actions will inspire professionals to be more open about the pain burnout can bring, there are steps employers can take as well to both recognise and support colleagues struggling with this issue.

What is burnout?

The World Psychiatric Association defines burnout as a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic stress, while Mental Health UK defines it as “a state of physical and emotional exhaustion” which 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.”

Those suffering from burnout can face excessive stress, fatigue, insomnia, anger, and depression, alongside the physical health consequences that these issues bring. As a result, individuals may also turn to drinking, drugs, or other harmful behaviours in a bid to cope. In this workplace, this might look like employees being more cynical or feeling overwhelmed, as well as being less effective in completing their tasks.

It is therefore vital for managers to be aware of signs of burnout among employees and tackle the root causes. A workplace that does not take steps to tackle burnout is at risk of high turnover, low productivity, and an increased number of sick days.

Supporting those with burnout

Burnout gets worse the longer it goes untreated and usually requires a long-term plan to implement sustainable working practices and help employees reach a healthier state of mind.

This process can include:

Evaluating the situation – Employees and managers can discuss possible workplace triggers for burnout, such as unrealistic workloads or expectations, and adjust them to a manageable level.

Finding support – Colleagues should be made to feel comfortable about reaching out to colleagues, friends, or family members for support. This may also involve access to professional support, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP).

Encouraging breaks – A common trigger for burnout is a never-ending cycle of stress, without a transition to a more relaxed state. Prompting breaks throughout the day breaks this cycle, allowing employees to relax by taking a walk, catching up with colleagues, or simply grabbing a coffee. Managers can help an employee who struggles to step away from their desk to build these breaks into their day in a structured manner.

Preventing burnout

There are myriad ways employers can take preventative measures within their organisation and build a supportive culture with mental health at its heart. But what exactly does this entail? Some examples include:
• Incorporating well-being checks in regular one-to-one meetings, giving employees an opportunity to raise concerns
• Encouraging senior leaders to share honest and personal experiences to inspire others to do the same
• Offering alternative ways for employees to speak up – not everyone feels comfortable talking to their manager or colleague, so it’s important to make sure other routes exist for employees to share their concerns, such as online chats or counselling

Some organisations also build boundaries into the working day, such as by having an official end of the working day when work e-mails are discouraged and employees are encouraged to clock off and enjoy their evening. This may not be possible across all roles, but promoting boundaries between professional and personal lives can be key to building a healthy work-life balance.

Tailored guidance

Many organisations struggle to let employees know what support is on hand. Research shows less than a quarter of people know that their workplace had a plan in place to pinpoint signs of chronic stress. It is important to share information about the healthcare and benefits available, and offering support systems including an EAP or mental health first aid.

There are also numerous events, such as ‘Time to Talk Day’ or ‘World Mental Health Day’, that can be used to educate employees about the symptoms of burnout and the support available.

Leaders need support too

Senior executives are often seen as stoic sentinels that guide businesses through challenging times, but the pressure takes its toll – just ask Jacinda Ardern.

A survey by Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021 revealed that nearly 60% of leaders reported they feel “used up” at the end of the workday. This will only get worse as the UK economy continues to struggle, so it is vital that leaders themselves ensure they are building a sustainable way of working and have the support necessary to lead without succumbing to burnout.

Senior leaders can discuss mental health and receive support from peers across their professional networks. They should also assess what roles and responsibilities can be delegated, as relinquishing control can free up much-needed emotional bandwidth, as can taking annual leave and setting boundaries on working hours.

A workplace in balance

There is no shame in striving to be excellent in your role, and many of us thrive under pressure. But while stress is a part of working life, it shouldn’t escalate to unhealthy levels. Jacinda Arden’s decision to resign is a case in point, and something which we hope will encourage business leaders and employees alike to really consider their own well-being.

Fostering a culture where colleagues at all levels are aware of mental wellbeing and the support available, while also encouraging personal action and support on a peer-to-peer basis, can prevent burnout and ultimately improve the operational efficiency of an organisation.