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13 May 2022
by Andrew Walker

Beating burnout: is a company shutdown the answer?

Time off for tired employees is vital, but not much good if staff feel they still need to be answering emails

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‘Burnout breaks’ have been in the news in recent months, with high-profile companies like Bumble, LinkedIn, Mozilla and Hootsuite instigating a week-long shutdown to give tired employees the chance to properly switch off.

With everyone off at the same time, workers aren’t inundated by emails, meeting notes and project requests piling up in their absence.

Fair enough – but is the burnout break the right solution for your organisation?

The scale of the problem

Burnout — the mental and physical exhaustion felt when the demands of work consistently exceed the amount of energy you have – has been called the epidemic of the modern workplace.

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated this situation, as many employees faced overwork, stress and sleep deprivation over a sustained period. We’re still feeling the effects, with employees experiencing burnout, differently depending on the nature of their work.  

For desk-based workers, there’s pressure to be always on, answering emails day and night. Smartphones blur the boundaries between work and home life, a process which increased dramatically thanks to enforced home working during lockdown.

Meanwhile, frontline workers are experiencing physical and emotional exhaustion from constantly dealing with stressful, even traumatising situations over the last 18 months.

Burnout among NHS staff in particular has been in the news, with worryingly high numbers, says the BMJ, experiencing depression, anxiety, stress, or exhaustion due to the pressures of the pandemic. Being unable to prevent their patients and colleagues falling ill or even dying, combined with intense worry about transmitting the virus to loved ones has left many staff burnt out to the point of leaving healthcare altogether. Even at a lower level, many report feeling hopeless and losing the drive to keep working.

Beating burnout

For all organisations, the negative effects of burnout are obvious. Burned-out employees are unlikely to work effectively; they may suffer long-term physical and mental health problems or even be exhausted to the point of leaving work altogether. 

But the solution will differ depending on the nature of the organisation. Realistically, only companies with a large proportion of desk-based workers can achieve a week-long shutdown – but there are other ways to give employees the chance to restock their energy.

Mental health resources

This is a timely opportunity for HR leaders to think about what mental health support they offer and how employees are accessing it. There is a growing demand for mental health services delivered wherever and whenever employees need it.

Protecting physical health

Physical inactivity and poor diet are among the top causes of ill health, which can negatively affect our working life. Conversely, when we’re feeling well, we’re at our best. We’re more productive and take less time off sick, so it’s no surprise that employers increasingly see that it makes business sense to support the health of their staff.

Juggling work/life balance

It’s not just work that can contribute to burnout. Employees may be struggling to balance employment with caring responsibilities, which is why it’s vital that your workplace culture supports the flexible and family-friendly policies you have in place.

Take a holiday

Encouraging tired employees to take time off may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not quite that simple. The thinking behind the ‘burnout break’ is that only when everyone is off work at the same time will employees truly be able to relax, since when employees normally take leave they feel pressure to stay connected, even when on holiday.

The solution revolves around a culture shift – respecting people’s time off from work so they can have the chance to switch off, socialise with family and friends and engage in activities unrelated to work. They’ll come back rested and ready to perform at their best.

Unsurprisingly, there is no silver bullet to beating burnout. Employers need to consider the different pressures their workforce may be facing and offer resources that address individual needs. Changing the culture to allow employees uninterrupted time to focus on themselves is also important.

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