There's a trade-off for using social media and keeping connected with friends and family during the working day, says Jason Walker of recruitment firm Hays. And that's an expectation that you'll answer work messages during what used to be called "out of hours".

It means that in this new flexible working world, the line between work and play is a soft grey — and that could be among the factors that can lead to burnout.

Occupational burnout can result from long-term job stress. In 1974, Herbert Freudenberger became the first researcher to use the term and characterised the condition by a set of symptoms such as exhaustion due to excessive demands as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and sleeplessness, short temper and closed thinking.

Burnout can take years to recover from and unlike a broken bone there are few outward signs to pick up on at its onset, or that of its precursor; brownout — typified by disengagement and demotivation. Walker, managing director of Hays New Zealand, says: "Modern technology and the smartphone can play a part in burnout. It is hard to get away."

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Adding to that is an apparent shortage of skilled staff, compounded by firms trimming their headcount and loading work on to other staff (often without any consultation).

"It is a lot more difficult to find good quality people to run projects, so firms are putting more pressure and workload on to their current head-count. And that has an impact on burnout levels," says Walker.

However, he says there is a lot more awareness about the condition now and more acceptance among the more progressive employers about the need to look after people's mental health in the workplace.

Walker cites research carried out by Willis Towers Watson that shows one third of people are getting sick just by turning up for work.

The research reveals the main reason people do not disclose a mental health issue (41 per cent) is a concern it would affect their job prospects, while 38 per cent are worried that management or colleagues would not understand. The tide is turning though.

"What you are starting to see are a lot more people being a lot more comfortable about raising these things instead of hiding them," says Walker. "There is a massive stigma around mental health.

"How do you bring it to your firm's attention without having an effect on your career? How do you bring that to someone's attention without you feeling they will treat you differently? Those are the sorts of hurdles people need to overcome.

"And it's not that employers ignore it ... it's fairly new that employers have had to start talking about it in the workplace. But it is the responsibility of employers to help their staff through these issues."

Walker says every employer needs to start looking at their response when staff raise issues about workplace stress and need to provide a vehicle for their staff to raise these issues without fear — that could be a third party service that has trained people who work in this area.

"It is a health and safety issue, a critical risk factor," he says. "Stresses can include workplace harassment, financial issues and general work stress — but there has to be an outlet for staff — many firms outsource this."

One issue Jason points to is sick days. If people are physically injured there's no question about having time off, but when it comes to issues of the mind a different attitude can prevail.

"There are firms now offering mental health days, but I think they are few and far between, because when a CEO or MD acknowledges they offer mental health days it makes the news," says Walker.

The bottom line for staff is that while they are expected to work flexibly, with always-on communication, they must strike a balance between life and work.

Striking the balance
Output over hours: It is quality not quantity that counts. Make staff aware that it is their output, not physical or virtual presenteeism that delivers results.

Assess overtime: If it is abnormally high, is it time to recruit an additional team member?

Set hours: Ensure employees working flexibly set clear times when they are not working.

Downtime: Ensure employees working flexibly take their full annual leave entitlement.

Review your culture: It should support wellbeing, including mental and physical health.

Email-free hours: Consider a policy regarding reading and sending emails outside standard business hours.

Source / Hays