Burnout – recognise the early warning signs before it leads to a nervous breakdown in the workplace

Corinna Hartwig, Hertfordshire Growth Hub

Mental Health UK* conducted a survey in March 2021 and found that 1 in 5 UK workers felt unable to manage pressure and stress levels at work.

Further, Mental Health UK state: Burnout isn’t something which goes away on its own. Rather, it can worsen unless you address the underlying issues causing it. If you ignore the signs of burnout, it could cause further harm to your physical and mental health in the future. You could also lose the ability and energy to effectively meet the demands of your job which could have knock-on effects to the other areas of your life.

As prevalent as it is, burnout is often misunderstood, stigmatised, and costly both to employees’ health and wellbeing, and employers’ productivity. But it is not just the employees that can suffer from burnout. Of course, manager and business owner who have often greater responsibilities to juggle can be also affected.

46% of UK workers feel ‘more prone to extreme levels of stress’ compared with a year ago (March 2020), while only 15% feel ‘less prone to extreme levels of stress’.

Gender and age play a role in this prevalence, with women and young people reported feeling more prone to extreme stress and pressure at work.

Below is a personal account of a female employee who experienced burnout and eventually a breakdown.

“Just before the pandemic I suffered a mental breakdown after a burnout, due to workplace stress.

I didn’t think I would ever get to that point- that I would ever burnout and stop functioning. But it is not an experience that I wish for anyone to have.

And therefore, I decided to share my journey into the abyss and back, trying to reflect on why I think it happened to me and what cured me.

I am sharing this personal insight in the hope that it will prevent another human being from suffering from it. I hope that some business leader and manager will read it and share it, to break the silence around burnout and nervous breakdown due to stress in the workplace

The breakdown happened two and a half months before the pandemic.

And, my stress bucket – I recognise now – was probably already pretty full. I was juggling teenagers, a home with garden, aging in-laws and an aging parent living abroad. I was also going through the menopause.

I guess, to depict the backdrop to my personal burnout I will have to tell you a few more things about myself – in particular about my personal values.

I need to highlight at this point that protecting the environment is important to me – I don’t mean it in a militant way – but it is ingrained in my being, and it hurts me physically when it’s not respected by unnecessary journeys by car, plane or train, by creating waste, by wasting resources, etc…you get the idea. I am also a warm personable person, thriving on human connections- rooting to belong to a wider tribe that wants to support other people. Shut me out – and I feel hurt.

Professionally I mainly worked as a self-employed person as my main role was that of a mother, and a reliable partner for my other half who was very frequently away for work. As you do in the gig economy, I was always trying to find the next new opportunity, freelancing here and there, or looking to secure and then deliver a contract with the aim to contribute to the household income but also to be mentally challenged and to play my part in making the world a better place. Occasionally I would dip into employment.

Whenever I was employed, I had to go through the usual H&S training over and over again- sitting for hours in front of the screen all by myself – when I really wanted to get to know the team first.

I remember one occasion when I was required to attend an internal corporate motivational talk that required me to get up in the middle of the night, to travel long distances by train to sit in a room full of strangers, being talked at on how great the culture and values of this organisation was. Late in the evening, I got home, exhausted – feeling disconnect from my family and certainly not more connected to my place of work. Attending this talk was mandatory – and part of my induction. What a waste of everyone’s energy, money, and time – and how counterproductive.

On another occasion, in a different role, I sat in a larger, hot desking office environment. I was not allowed to create my personal space. Some days nobody would say good morning or good evening – or ask how I was today.

Not knowing who I was sitting next to, feeling a stranger amongst strangers, unwillingly forced to overhear multiple telephone conversations, office banter in which I was not invited to take part in, or I didn’t understand – yet I was asked to deliver work as part of a team – I felt utterly lonely. Where was that team?

I delivered what I was paid to do, crying on my journey home. I felt like selling myself and my soul, feeling incredibly isolated in my work persona.

All these feeling and emotions indicated that I was headed for a burnout. But I didn’t know that at the time, and I pushed on.

Yet the most decisive and final contribution to my breakdown, I think, was when I was required to travel in rush hour for a different employer, during the long, dark winter days. My manager was adamant- I had to work 9 to 5, in a workplace that I could reach within 20 minutes car journey out of rush hour times but would take me over an hour during rush hour.

There was no opportunity to work from home although my job didn’t really require me to be always at that location. And, again, I had no desk to call my own, nowhere to leave my belongings, to create a bit of a personal space.

I also didn’t have access to all the basic tools that I needed to do my job, and when I repeatedly asked if I could have access to simple tools and some personal desk space- I was told “no, it’s not possible”.

During these endless hours, sitting in traffic jams, listening to the news talking about the climate emergency, I felt personally offended, hurt and confused.

A couple of days before my breakdown, the routine “review” was due with my manager. This manager asked the routine questions “how are you?”

I replied, “I feel stressed”. The manager ticked that box off the list, without trying to unpick the “stress”, to truly understand or to offer solution to reduce the pressures. No further action or suggestions how the stress could be reduced were discussed. The manager had to rush off, for a hair appointment. My stress bucket was now overflowing.

Three days later I could not eat, not sleep, not get out of bed- and the worst was I was unable to think, to function. I was a heap, a total mess. It was frightening, I had never felt like this in my entire life before – and I had weathered much tougher situations before in my life – believe me.

My kids didn’t know what to do with me- looking at me with sad eyes; and my partner was worried.

It took me two months to regain some physical strength, I had lost a lot of weight. And it took me about the same time to recover and be able to think cohesively and focus again. My contract had ended two weeks after my breakdown – whilst I was off ill.

And then the pandemic hit.

Now, you all know what hardships the pandemic brought on. But for me, the pandemic played a part in my healing process: commuting to work stopped overnight and the world was working from home. People reached out and looked out for each other, kindness and flexibility reigned. And I healed and was able to slowly to pick up my courage and look for new opportunities again.

I beg you – employers! Look out for your staff, especially in this transitional phase. Find out, what kind of individuals they are and what is important to them, and which values matter. Acknowledge this because, if you truly understand your employees and give them what they need, they will give you what you need- and more.”

If you are an employer that wishes to support their staff during the on-going pandemic, where increased levels of stress due to hybrid or home-working heighten the chances of burnout, please note that there are many tools you can use to lessen stress, loneliness and demotivation among your team. One of the simplest tools to start with is to listen and to show empathy- and sometimes that is all that is needed.

Also, if you are taking on new staff, pay particular attention to the on-boarding process. Creating a team, a tribe that will support one another should be the highest priority- especially if hybrid working/working from home creates new dynamics and potentially tensions.

If you are a manger, aside from being empathetic and sensitive to spot the signs in your employees, you have also have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees. As part of this, an employer must conduct risk assessments for work-related stress and take actions to prevent staff from experiencing a stress-related illness because of their work.

Come and speak to us. We can help you with putting Wellbeing Action Plans or with a Stress Risk Assessment into practice to support you to keep your workforce healthy, happy and productive.

Find out more about the signs of burnout and the survey conducted at Mental Health UK*

For more information on how to conduct a risk assessment, go to www.hse.gov.uk/stress.

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