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Addressing Burnout in the Workplace

Feb. 2, 2023
These are challenging times. It’s time to show workers you care about their mental and physical well-being.

Individuals are burning out at alarming rates.

People feel a constant demand to deliver, so they’re burning out or they’re leaving their jobs. COVID-19, the Great Resignation and economic uncertainty have amplified the burnout rate given the number of changes in the workplace and at home, especially among working parents.

For EHS professionals, there typically isn’t an option to work remotely, as the pandemic increased demand for on-site health and safety products and protocols. EHS all-stars were part of the front line, risking their lives every day to keep manufacturing plants and warehouses open—and keeping the country going. These demands have led to increased stress and burnout among EHS personnel.

Why Burnout is a Threat to Workplace Safety

Burnout is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It is characterized by feelings of energy depletion, detachment from work and decreased effectiveness in one’s professional life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is an occupational phenomenon that occurs when someone experiences long-term stress or tension related to their job.

The WHO defines burnout as an “occupational syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The organization’s definition further states that it can manifest with symptoms such as exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of reduced accomplishment. In addition to these mental symptoms, physical signs such as headaches and insomnia may also occur due to prolonged periods of workplace stress. Furthermore, those suffering from burnout may find themselves struggling with decreased performance at work or in other areas of their lives.

Employee burnout is a serious problem that can have disastrous effects on employees, their families and the businesses they work for. As such, it’s essential for EHS managers to understand the signs of burnout. They also need to know how to prevent and manage burnout in order to ensure employee well-being.

As an EHS manager, there are several steps you can take to help your employees avoid burnout:

  • First, ensure that your staff has access to resources needed for job performance. This includes adequate training and support from colleagues or management.
  • Additionally, regularly evaluate working conditions within the company—both physical environment and workloads—as these are often major factors associated with burnout.
  • It’s also important to provide opportunities for feedback so you can identify any areas where employees may be struggling or not feeling supported by the company culture.

The Link Between Burnout and Stress

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on the mental health and well-being of workers around the globe. The past three years have created an atmosphere that has caused stress and anxiety for many employees. Given the disruption so many of us have felt — some with no end in sight  it’s important to understand how these events are impacting our mental health. We also need to learn what we can do to protect ourselves from harm.

Experts have previously observed that workers experience higher levels of stress during times of economic insecurity. This could be due to financial worries, job loss or simply because people feel an overall sense of instability in their lives. For those already struggling with existing mental health issues, this insecurity can make them even more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Whether it’s compassion fatigue or burnout, stress is a common element in both. Stress is taking a toll on your life, and you need to figure out ways to address it. There are different strategies experts recommend, including a focus on:

  • Sleep,
  • Nutrition,
  • Time management,
  • Cleanliness and
  • Keeping organized/reducing clutter.

You may view stress as a personal issue, but it’s also a workplace concern. Team morale impacts communication. If your organization has a constant turnover of staff, you’re always onboarding new talent, which hinders productivity and poses challenges to safety.

Creating strong communication protocols within your organization, no matter how big or small, will help you retain top talent and grow your organization. Continual review with your team on how to become more efficient and improve internal communication will go a long way in reducing burnout in your clinic.

EHS personnel who are burning out often feel a lack of trust from their organization. As Lea Brovedani wrote in an article for EHS Today, there are five tenets of trust that are critical to the health of an organization: 

"Caring - Demonstrate genuine care of others. Employees can tell if compliance is about CYA (Cover Your Assets) rather than caring for them as individuals.

"Commitment - Keeping your word or not stopping until your work or task is completed. When you are committed to a safe workplace, it becomes a value that is nonnegotiable, and everyone lives and breathes it.

"Consistency - Words and actions are aligned. The rules apply to everyone.

"Competence - A skill or knowledge that aligns with the task. Everyone should be trained so they have the skills and abilities to do their job safely.

"Communication - Being able to listen and verbalize for complete understanding," Brovedani wrote.

How Burnout Contributes to Labor Challenges

Since early 2021, millions of people have voluntarily quit their jobs, known as the Great Resignation. Causes for the mass exodus include low wage increases, micromanagement, concern about going back to the workplace after COVID-19 pandemic and lack of flexibility by management.

Labor shortages, combine with mass layoffs, have only exacerbated the labor challenges companies and workers face. Employment issues will likely continue for the foreseeable future, especially as the Federal Reserve and other economic forces manipulate the landscape.

Here are three ways to prevent your team from burning out because of the changing labor dynamics:

Listen to your employees.

Even the most brilliant of minds are not mind readers, so you cannot expect that you will fully know what’s on the minds of your employees or what they want out of their work role. You can find out, though, by simply asking.

To do so, create a safe environment where employees can speak freely and without retribution. Ask employees how they are doing and what they need from the company at the present moment. Is there anything that the company can do to help them navigate through these changing times? How can management better support them?

Then, take action or make decisions based on what they tell you. Prove to employees that what they say matters—and you’re listening. This is an ongoing exercise, not a one-and-done practice. Repeat the process on a regular basis and see how those conversations shift or progress. You may be surprised with what you find—and the impact small changes can have on the safety culture at your organization.

Ask about what flexible work means to your team.

Flexibility is different for everyone, so if your team would like to work remotely (if possible) for a certain amount of time, then get creative on how to make that happen. Some people thrive in an office environment, while others thrive working remotely.

The most important thing is to be flexible with the policies and frequently communicate with your team to see how it’s working (or not) for them. Then, continue to readjust or reassess based on changing conditions and employees’ needs; just because something works today doesn’t mean it will work six months from now.

Focus on your team’s professional and personal physical and mental health needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been traumatic for everyone. As a result, having a psychologically safe workplace is more important than ever.

Psychological safety is the belief that one can take risks without fear of negative consequences or humiliation. When employees have this sense of security, they are able to bring their best self to work and be more creative, innovative and collaborative. Psychological safety is essential to creating a productive workplace environment.

A psychologically safe workplace encourages open communication and allows teams to engage in constructive dialogue without fear of judgment, criticism or reprisal. Employees should feel comfortable expressing opinions, sharing ideas and asking questions.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace requires commitment from leadership at all levels within the organization. Leaders must create an environment where team members feel accepted for who they are and respected for their contributions.

Burnout has been increasing in every sector. Maintaining open communication with your team, creating a safe space where they feel comfortable asking questions, and getting them the help they need goes a long way toward retaining workers and keeping them healthy.

How to Address Burnout

One way to help combat burnout is for leadership to take downtime seriously. Executives need to use their vacation time and encourage their teams to do the same.

We have seen vacation habits change since the onset of the pandemic. People may be concerned about or wondering how to spend that vacation time, but simply taking it is the most important part. Do what you feel comfortable doing, even if it’s just for an afternoon. Staycations can be relaxing if you can resist the urge to work or check email.

Another way to address burnout is to establish boundaries around working hours. Encouraging employees and yourself to spend some time each day relaxing is crucial to maintaining well-being for yourself and your team. Some tips to create the work-life balance:

Have a standard start and end to your workday.

The pandemic might have changed the way people work, but not necessarily for the better. With so many companies opting to switch their in-person working hours to remote ones, flexibility has been introduced that some might see as a benefit. However, this newfound flexibility can easily lead to employees working more hours than they would if they were in an office setting.

Employees may think that having flexible working hours means that they can take extended breaks throughout the day or even fewer days off per week, but this isn’t always the case. For many people, these flexible schedules can lead to longer workdays and less of a distinction between work life and home life.

Manage distractions/interruptions.

Every time you are interrupted, it can take up to 30 minutes to get back your focus. If there’s any way for you to isolate yourself in time blocks, you’ll accomplish more work in less time. Turn off whatever sounds, apps and notifications you feel comfortable with on your personal and work devices.

Schedule breaks frequently.

If you can work in 50-minute increments without interruptions, then give yourself a 10-minute stretch break. Go for a walk around the office, shop floor or outside for some fresh air if you can.

Get proper nutrition and exercise. Vitamin D deficiency is a huge issue for many of us, and if we are indoors all the time, we’re not getting enough sunshine, a natural source of vitamin D.

Work with a nutritionist to find out the proper food and vitamin supplements you need for proper health. Also, be sure to develop an exercise routine. Work with your healthcare provider to create an exercise plan that’s safe and effective.

Conclusion

The workplace can be a stressful environment, and the consequences of burnout in the workplace can be significant. Providing mental health resources, offering flexible working arrangements and paid time off, establishing clear expectations around workloads, and providing support systems will go a long way toward keeping your organization healthy. By implementing effective strategies for reducing stress and addressing symptoms of burnout they occur, employers can create a more positive atmosphere for their employees.

Michael Levitt is the founder and chief burnout officer of the Breakfast Leadership Network, a San Diego and Toronto-based burnout consulting firm. He is an author, keynote speaker, host of the Breakfast Leadership show, a certified NLP and CBT therapist and a Fortune 500 consultant.

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