A leading health expert from Dundee fears many workers could be at high risk of burnout as ‘normality’ begins to return. One sufferer shares his story.
Dr Ayse Basak Cinar, senior research fellow at Dundee University, says: “Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost, in the UK during 2018-2019.”
Early research into the health impacts of lockdown, shows employees were reporting reduced motivation, loss of purpose and motivation, anxiety and isolation. So the risk of suffering burnout has already risen.
“Uncertainty leads to anxiety – the human brain stays in fight or flight mode. The lack of clear answers about returning to work leads to stress among employees,” Dr Cinar continues.
“There will be higher levels of people suffering burnout than in a ‘normal’ year, due to lockdowns.
“There’s high probability burnout will rise when employees return to work. This is due to significantly rising burnout history before Covid-19, challenges and emotional turbulences along with loneliness during lockdowns, work overload, post-term Covid-19 effects, and that uncertainty.”
‘No matter what I did, it didn’t feel good enough’
Ian Courtney had a stable, well-paid job in banking as a mortgage advisor.
“I was training for an ultra marathon for the first eight months of my job. When that was done, the dam burst and all I could focus on was work and how terrible it was,” he recalls.
“The hours were poorly scheduled, and I was exhausted. No matter what I did, it didn’t feel good enough. I felt like I was slipping away in my own head.”
One Friday, Ian, 38, left the office, went home, and stayed there for six months. He says he experienced a “meltdown” – a build-up of anxiety which led him to be almost non-functioning.
His case was severe, but millions of employees are experiencing, or have experienced, similar.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
Dr Annie Hickox, a consultant clinical psychologist, says although burnout is an individual experience, there are common themes.
“These tend to be an experience of chronic stress, constant exhaustion, irritability, low sense of accomplishment and not feeling appreciated despite long hours and high demands at work,” she says.
A 2018 survey by the Mental Health Foundation, found 74% of Scottish adults have felt so stressed they were overwhelmed or unable to cope.
Burnout now has official recognition from the World Health Organisation as a syndrome ‘resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.
Chronic workplace stress can stem from a whole host of factors, says Dr Hickox.
“Balance is essential. If a job is demanding and stressful it is vital that the amount of support and reward are sufficient to match it.
“Sometimes the problem arises from the nature of work itself or a mismatch between the job and the individual.”
The latter was the case for Ian. He attributes his burnout to a “cumulative exhaustion” spanning 15 years, rather than that one job which broke the camel’s back.
“The cycle of going through the same type of role was doing me no good – I felt like I was a battery hen. I needed to feel I was doing something of worth,” he says.
‘It’s the best thing I ever did!’
“When I recovered, I took a part-time job doing admin for the NHS, and I’m still there. Working in the public sector was contributing more to the ‘greater good’ than anything I’d done before.
“My work had value, and that has kept me on the right path since. It’s the best thing I ever did.”
Although finding a more rewarding career alleviated Ian’s burnout, Dr. Hickox recommends attempting to rebalance your current job before quitting.
Addressing workload or lack of reward directly with managers may be vital in making work more manageable – and even enjoyable.
Dr Hickox says: “Many employees suffer silently or blame themselves for not being up to the job. In fact, it may be the workplace that needs to change, and balance will only be achieved by good communication on both sides.”
Burnout should be treated like any other illness – in its early stages, before the problem escalates. Contact Mind who can help advise if you’re struggling.