Characterising and supporting burn out in the workplace
Are you feeling exhausted at the end of your working day? Do you feel apprehensive just at the thought of going to work? Do you feel yourself just going through the motions? If so you may be experiencing burnout. With large numbers of healthcare workers having to self-isolate through illness or be absent due to sheer exhaustion, this will no doubt have an effect on frontline staff and the workforce as a whole.
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD), burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed1.
Three dimensions characterise it:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy.
What are signs and symptoms?
People who experience burnout typically feel a mixture of symptoms that can be both physical and mental. Physical symptoms can manifest, such as chronic stress, headaches and intestinal issues. The end stage for those suffering from burnout is often a debilitating mental health condition such as clinical depression or anxiety. Burnout can also cause emotional exhaustion leading to people feeling drained, unable to cope or focus and constantly tired. Performance at work is often affected and the inability to separate work from home life can affect sleep patterns and overall general health and wellbeing of a person.
How do we deal with burnout in the workplace?
A starting point would be to recognise that symptoms of burnout are present and to try to tackle this before the problem worsens or they reach crisis point. By having open and honest conversations with line managers, this can be the start of managing individual expectations, seeking support from inside and outside of the workplace via various methods, and to start recharging emotional batteries.
Mental health first aid (MHFA)
Some workplaces provide access to mental health first aiders. MHFA training came to England in 2007. The Department of Health: National Institute of Mental Health in England (NIMHE) developed and launched the programme as part of a national approach to improve public mental health.
There are plenty of different types of support out there, and a mental health first aider can help you access the support you need to feel better. Mental health first aiders are a point of contact if you, or someone you are concerned about, are experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress. They are not therapists or psychiatrists but they can give you initial support and signpost you to appropriate help if required.
Is my stress bucket full?
Sometimes you feel strong enough to carry a lot of stress, but it is important to find activities that help you lighten the load. A good start is to ask yourself key questions like ‘what can I do to reduce stress? ‘and ‘how can I keep certain activities going when other pressures build up?’
A simple and effective tool would be to think about the ‘stress bucket’2 together with staff, which can enable you to prompt colleagues to take action and tackle current issues but start to build your resilience.
CSP support in the workplace
One of the most effective ways to stop or prevent staff suffering burnout is for the issue to be tackled at an organisational level. If you think you and colleagues are at risk, consider asking your CSP safety rep or steward to conduct a membership stress survey to identify the key causes. Typically, the survey when done will show excessive demands coupled with insufficient support. Your rep can then use these findings as evidence to put to the employer to take action. When notified in this way, under health and safety regulation management should work with the rep and you to find acceptable solutions.
- For more information on what a safety rep can do. Download the leaflet.
If you don’t have a CSP rep in your workplace, you can:
- Check to see if your employer has a stress management or health and wellbeing policy that sets out what preventative measures or support that should be offered for staff
- Talk to your manager and colleagues if you feel change is required to how you are working. Refer to the CSP stress advice sheet on demands for ideas to discuss with colleagues on how to reduce work pressures
- Contact the CSP enquiry team on 020 7306 666 to be referred to our union services, if you require further advice and support.
- Feature on burnout by psychologist Professor Christina Maslach
- CSP resources
- Working together to reduce stress at work A guide for employees, produced by the Health and Safety Executive
- Useful HSE resource for managers concerned about staff wellbeing
- ACAS information on stress at work
- Mental health first aid: MHFA Interactive Stress Container
- WHO: Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases
- Mental Health UK: The stress bucket
The CSP’s Professional Advice Service gives advice and support to members on complex and specialist enquiries about physiotherapy practice, including professional practice issues, standards, values and behaviours, international working, service design and commissioning, and policy in practice.
- Julie Blackburn and Jane Mitchell are CSP professional advisers
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