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When burnout becomes a business issue

Last week, burnout has been officially classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a clinical condition resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. WHO announced last Tuesday that burnout will be added as an official syndrome in their International Classification of Diseases Handbook, which goes into effect in January 2022. According to the WHO’s guidelines, medical professionals can diagnose burnout where the individual is experiencing feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance, negativism or cynicism related to their work or reduced professional efficacy.

The organisational impact of burnout

Recent years have seen increased working hours and the expectation for many employees to be reachable outside of the office, reflected by growing number of burnout cases. A 2018 Gallup study found that about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout at work. Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take sick days and 2.6 times more likely to actively look for a different job.

Across all industries, we are reaching high levels of burnout. High-stress professions such as doctors are burning out twice as fast and human service professional such as teachers, social workers or healthcare workers are also at high risk of burnout. Financial services workers are another high-risk category, with 50 to 80 percent of bankers worldwide feeling burned out.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) study over half million UK workers suffer from burnout, resulting in 12.5 million workdays lost between 2016 and 2017. With burnout becoming a bigger organisational issue, businesses need to focus on steps to mitigate burnout and prevent it from happening.

The role of the leader in preventing burnout

Psychologists define burnout as feeling drained and emotionally exhausted, being unable to accomplish work to the usual extent. Some of the symptoms include lack of energy needed to be productive, little satisfaction when we achieve something or having hard time motivating ourselves. Intensity is not the only reason we experience burnout at work – factors such as lack of clarity, challenge or variety also play a role.

Whilst leaders don’t want their employees to burn out, they are also focused on inspiring higher productivity and performance. However, often burnout is less about the hard work and performance and more about how the employee is managed. Managers have responsibility for fostering a positive workplace culture and addressing stress factors their employees experience at work. When employees feel burnt out, it becomes a challenge to get them back on track as they are less open to discuss their performance goals, they become resistant to coaching and develop a mindset that is focused on fixing the problem, rather than looking at the future. Therefore, it’s essential that managers take steps to prevent burnout before it occurs.

Employees whose manager is always willing to listen to their work-related problems and is actively involved in their development, are 62% less likely to be burned out. On the other hand those who don’t trust their managers or the leadership team, are 2.3 times more likely to experience high levels of burnout. Authentic leaders who communicate expectations, responsibilities and performance goals with their teams and collaborate with them to ensure that they are clear and aligned, can prevent employees feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated.

When employees feel supported and frequently connect with their managers, it creates a psychological buffer that assures them that even when something goes wrong, their managers have their back. On the other hand, a manager who is absent leaves employees feel uninformed and frustrated, leading to long term negative impact.

Burnout can be prevented by addressing the causes and changing the leadership style to create an environment that empowers employees to feel and perform their best. At Acumen we design and deliver tailored leadership development programmes to equip your leaders with the best skills and practices to develop a healthy and motivated work environment. For more information, please contact Simon at

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