Fatigue is usually a problem we associate with jobs like truck driving or nursing, where physical demands and 24-hour rosters must be tightly monitored. In the corporate world, fatigue gets swept under the rug; it’s just part of the game.
But left unaddressed over a prolonged period, and combined with other stress factors, this can lead to burnout - a more serious problem that can cause long term psychological damage. Here are five warning signs that employers and workers need to watch out for - and how to fix existing problems.
Australia is currently facing record levels of ‘underemployment’, with a higher portion of part-timers, contractors and casuals than ever before. But underemployment is also a sign that a lot of companies are operating thinly to maximise profits.
In short, a smaller pool of full-time employees are taking on more than they can handle, resulting in high pressure, long hours, stress and anxiety. Research from Curtin University and think tank Making Work Absolutely Human shows that almost a third of Australians are dissatisfied with their high working hours.
The truth is many Australian workers are more at risk of burnout than ever before. A study by MinterEllison found that 56 per cent of local organisations have experienced a year-on-year increase in the number of workplace claims related to mental health.
What needs to happen is better monitoring and management of psychological health in the workplace, and to do that employers need to become better at identifying and addressing the red flags of burnout.
Red flag #1: Burning the candle at both ends
It’s hardly rocket science. Too much time at work is not good. If overwork is anything beyond the 40-hour work week, most Aussie workers would be pushing it. Who doesn’t regularly get in early, inhale a sandwich at their desk instead of taking a proper lunch break, and leave late or take their computer home?
Workplace burnout involves a prolonged and heightened response to work stress in which a person becomes drained from work demand. Long hours is the most obvious sign of things becoming a problem, particularly if the person is missing out on family, social or leisure time.
The best thing a company can do is enforce set hours and breaks, or allow for truly flexible work. Everyone should be eating their lunch outside the office or away from their desk, and schedule breaks from electronic devices.
The same goes for emails – strict ‘no emails before 8.30 or after 6’ policies do work if implemented at the top and adhered to by the whole organisation. Tomorrow’s another day and work isn’t life or death.
Red flag #2: Tired and uninspired
Engaging in tasks that feel meaningless can promote burnout. If someone seems unusually tired, flat and/or bored, this is a sign they may not be feeling good about what they’re doing.
Talk to them about their daily tasks. Is what you’ve given them to work on far too repetitive? Do they need a new challenge to rediscover their motivation? Find out what interests them and try to give them opportunities to do more of it, including training courses if appropriate.
Red flag #3: More than the occasional ‘sickie’
We know that psychological illness manifests itself physically. If someone has repetitive headaches, or colds and coughs that won’t go away – and you know they’ve been working a lot - they may be suffering exhaustion or burnout.
Rather than dismissing it as another ‘sickie’, look at ways to reduce their work stress. Can they job share, or receive some assistance with a particular client? Will any of the above suggestions around work hours help them to set some boundaries? Encourage annual leave to be taken as soon as possible, or offer some additional paid rest days in good faith to help them back on track.
Red flag #4: Rookie mistakes
Notice someone making uncharacteristic slip-ups or being overly forgetful? A sudden lack of attention to details is a warning sign of burnout.
Clearly, the person has too much on their plate and they can’t digest it all. Setting boundaries and structure will offer some relief. It’s also worth finding out if there are other stress factors outside of work that may be contributing to the overload. Do they need some flexibility from work to be able to deal with these properly and lighten the burden?
Red flag #5: Glass half empty
Emotions are always a tip-off for burnout, particularly cynicism and negativity. Does someone grimace at every request, or complain all the time about clients or the work they’ve been given? The occasional sigh at difficult clients or situations is one thing, but ongoing pessimism is a clear sign of unhappiness.
One way employers can combat this is by attaching more meaning to a person’s work efforts. Perhaps through volunteering or community engagement, an employee will feel more positive if they can see a broader impact from what they’re doing.
It’s also an idea to reduce the ‘BS’ around the office in terms of jargon, hierarchies and cliques. Having to project some image that is not authentic just to fit in can place a real strain on people’s wellbeing. Place as little emphasis as possible on titles and ‘who’s who’, work on improving teamwork, and praise people for their own unique skills instead of trying to make them fit a mould.
Tim Dowling is group commercial manager at Vault Intelligence.