Burnout is skyrocketing, and holidays might not help

Amy Imms, The Burnout Project

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Burnout is skyrocketing thanks to COVID-19, and leaders pinning their hopes on the Christmas break to "fix" it should adjust their expectations, a wellbeing expert warns.

Defined by the World Health Organisation as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn't been successfully managed, burnout leaves employees mentally and emotionally exhausted and withdrawn, says The Burnout Project founder, doctor Amy Imms.

Warning signs include feelings of dread, irritation, fatigue, distraction, isolation, apathy, and detachment, she tells HR Daily.

"It often goes unrecognised because it has a gradual onset," says Imms. "People then don't acknowledge it because it can make them feel inadequate, weak, or like a failure."

Many of the four million Australians who suffer from burnout will be hanging out for the Christmas break, desperately hoping it will fix things, Imms says – but this year, we're not approaching a "normal" holiday season.

This year, the possibility of changing restrictions and unexpected lockdowns will mean it's a time of significant uncertainty. Travel plans will be subject to change or cancellation, and many employees will spend the break missing loved ones they had hoped to be reunited with.

Even if this isn't the case, people with burnout often return from a break to find nothing has changed, Imms says. Within weeks they are back to feeling tired, ineffective and overwhelmed.

One reason is that a holiday can be a busy, stressful – and sometimes traumatic – time. Even without a global pandemic in the mix, the Christmas "break" can be a stark contrast to the "joyful holiday" it's "supposed" to be. Many employees will be facing extra stressors, such as anticipating Christmas without a deceased relative, or struggling to find holiday care for school-aged children.

Another reason is that for a break to result in sustainable change, employees need to set aside time for deliberate reflection and careful decision-making about how they can ensure things will be different moving forward.

"This is best done with a professional or at least another person to provide a broader perspective," Imms says.

Be realistic and proactive

It follows that HR should not assume employees will come back "refreshed and ready to be pushed to their limits again", and should encourage more realistic expectations in their own ranks and beyond, Imms says.

Leaders can also be proactive about offering help. "Be on the lookout for staff who are struggling in the lead-up to, and after, Christmas breaks. And if you recognise someone is struggling, mention it to them and offer support," she says.

HR can also work to prevent burnout by making employees feel valued and rewarded.

"Christmas is a great time to make a deliberate effort to verbally encourage staff," Imms says. "Thank them for things they do well. Make small gestures to show appreciation, such as Christmas gifts, bonuses, a paid dinner or drinks.

"Make sure these things feel really genuine and aren't just a Christmas-lip-service on the back of a year of poor treatment," she adds.

New year, new motivation

The new year is a great time to get everyone motivated by connecting their values to their organisation's mission and purpose, Imms says.

HR and managers can use this time to:

  • reinforce the organisation's mission, purpose and vision;
  • ensure employees understand how their day-to-day work contributes to that overall vision;
  • share any plans for change or changes of direction that might be coming up in the year ahead;
  • remind employees of the organisation's concern for staff wellbeing, including who they can go to for help and what services they can access if needed; and
  • check-in with individuals to discuss how they can achieve closer alignment between their role and their personal values, interests, strengths, and career goals.

Beating burnout with balance

If employers and employees understand the causes and effects of burnout, they can better manage and prevent it, by creating sustainable habits that lead to more balanced, productive and enjoyable lives, Imms says.

To this end, she's currently running a free online symposium, Thrive, with more than 30 speakers and a dedicated Facebook group.

Pre-recorded talks will be available for 72 hours, on topics including perfectionism and imposter syndrome, tuning into emotions, thriving through connection, and finding wellbeing through creative expression.

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