Employee burnout is high, with one recent survey reporting that one in three participants say they experienced this in the last 12 months. This can lead to disengagement, high staff turnover and claims connected with mental illness or injuries.

To mark the fact that today is World Day for Health and Safety at Work, we will look at how leading employers can help their workforces to be mentally well and avoid feelings of burning out.

One issue to consider is the role that subjective employee perceptions about work can have in affecting their mental wellbeing. Known psychosocial risk factors include the following perceptions:

  • Under-utilisation: they are not using their skills or training
  • Unpredictable or unrealistic: work hours are unpredictable or deadlines are unrealistic
  • Not meaningful: tasks are not regarded as meaningful or are monotonous
  • Lack of engagement: not being able to address issues constructively with supervisors or peers
  • Role confusion: a lack of clarity about objectives or accountabilities
  • Underappreciation: lack of recognition for the work they do
  • Poor change management: anxiety or ambiguity regarding the impact of changes, and
  • Unfairness: a failure to treat people fairly, with dignity and respect.

These risk factors are consistent with the findings of a joint research project between Harvard and MIT, which highlighted that some of the best ways to support wellbeing for workers is to provide them with more control, reduce excess work demands and improve social relationships at work.

One option is to adopt a psychosocial approach to reducing the above risks and create an environment that best supports wellbeing and avoids burnout. Practical strategies include:

  • Resilience programs. Numerous studies show the mental wellbeing benefits associated with offering workers training in how to be more resilient.
  • Consider disconnection strategies. We have previously written about union claims and global legal reforms regarding a ‘right to disconnect’. This is increasingly adopted as good business practice, with many companies encouraging employees to set boundaries on out of hours contact and communicate this clearly (e.g. via a message in email signatures).
  • Look at ways to give people autonomy, control and recognition. Think creatively about how to embed a sense of ownership and independence in everyday tasks and show appreciation (which does not necessarily depend on pay).
  • Monitor work hours and resourcing. Check to see how much people are working and, where there are excess overtime hours, try and understand why. This will also assist with Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) record keeping and award compliance requirements. If there is a resourcing crunch, how can this be addressed in both the short and long term?
  • Explain and clarify, as often as needed. Ensure people understand what they are supposed to be doing, what they are accountable for, and what their objectives are.
  • Create good working relationships. Look for opportunities to support positive team interactions at all levels – and embrace small wins. Do people feel comfortable asking each other for help and grabbing lunch or coffee together? Where people are working remotely this may require more effort but such efforts can provide huge returns for productivity and culture.
  • Set a safety based culture from the top down. Letting the workforce know that wellbeing and safety are priorities, and consulting with employees about safety measures will assist to demonstrate the genuine commitment to finding sustainable solutions as well as discharge work health and safety obligations.
  • Continue to support responsive measures. Programs such as EAP and mental health first aid are important to help employees respond to stressors as and when they arise.

There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to preventing employee burnout. Instead, employers have lots of opportunity to create an engaged and productive work culture while also reducing the risk of burnout.

Have a happy, healthy and safe World Day for Health and Safety at Work!