The four signs of burn-out:
• Emotional exhaustion.
• Indifference to work.
• Trouble staying focus.
• Lack of emotional control.
• Burnt-out workers are also significantly more likely to suffer depression, sleep problems or psychosomatic issues such as stomach cramps.
If you feel emotionally exhausted before your workday has even begun, you could be burnt out - and you could be in good company or, at least, in a lot of company.
That's according to AUT Business School Professor Jarrod Haar, who has just released the results of a survey of 1000 New Zealand workers (two-thirds of them white-collar) and how they fared, psychologically over the 2020 lockdowns.
Haar says burnout is an occupational phenomenon officially recognised in the World Health Orgainsation's International Classification of Diseases.
And that compared to international employees, Kiwi workers are at risk of becoming burnt out.
The AUT survey found 11 per cent of respondents were burnt out.
Equivalent studies in Belgium and the Netherlands found burnout levels of 8 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively - and they were carried out before Covid pressures kicked in.
So, how do you know if you're an employee who's burnt out?
Haar says there are four key signs to watch for: emotional exhaustion, feelings of indifference to work, trouble staying focused and a lack of emotional control.
While most employees feel tired or "burned out" at times, those who scored highly across all four factors are considered burnt out – when it comes to their jobs, they've got nothing left to give, Haar said.
Burnt-out workers were significantly more likely to report higher anxiety, depression, and psychological syndromes such as sleep issues or psychosomatic syndromes such as stomach cramps - than the rest of the study sample.
Burnt-out employees were also significantly more miserable than other participants in the study: the average happiness level of the burnt-out group was 48 per cent compared to 68 per cent of all others.
Other key findings:
• Workers in larger-sized firms (51+ employees) were 153 per cent more likely to be burnt out.
• Workers who are managers were 219 per cent more likely to be burnt out.
• Younger workers (aged 29 years and less) were 206 per cent more likely to be burnt out.
• Burnt-out essential workers were 152 per cent more likely to be burnt out.
Perhaps surprisingly the state of being burnt out was not significantly influenced by gender, marital or parental status, by the nature of the organisation - private, public or non-profit - or whether employees worked from home, Haar said.
How to address burnout
The Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Act 2002 gives employers a duty of care to help those with job stress, Haar told the Herald.
His top tip is prevention. "Don't be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff," he said.
"The top 20 per cent of firms in the survey performed 306 per cent better than the bottom 20 per cent, so there's evidence that it does make a difference when senior management takes an interest in wellbeing."
If staff have reached burnout, Haar said they should be encouraged to take sick leave. Employers should also consider paid leave.
"Recently we've seen Theresa Gattung saying she suffered burnout for three months," Haar said. The My Food Bag backer and ex-Telecom boss told TVNZ earlier this month that in 2017 her physical and mental health was badly affected by burnout. "I hardly left my bedroom for three months," the executive said. (At the time, Gattung's collapse at an event, which precipitated her malaise, was a mystery - and even put down to a possible tumour.)
But while a spirit of post-pandemic reform (and the disappearance of NZ First) recently saw sick leave extended from five to 10 days, Haar said that would still leave most people far short of being able to replicate Gattung's time out.
"The thing that worries me is, how many people could afford to mend themselves? No one really has three months leave up their sleeve."
Bosses should consider other forms of help, such as providing counselling via a workplace psychologist, Haar said.
It would be a worthwhile expense.
"Because, from my study, the ones probably more likely to burnout are going to be managers; I can almost guarantee they're more likely to be good performance who are just overdoing it. So it's important not only for their wellbeing but the longevity of their firm to address it."
Not bad overall
Overall, Haar said NZ firms are "fairly good" at providing policies, practices and procedures to help protect their employees' psychological health and safety. But he cautions more needs to be done – and it must be a systematic approach.
"Senior management plays an important role in the mental health of workers – but participation and consultation in occupational health involves everyone – management, employees, unions, health and safety representatives. Stress prevention and management needs to be a focus across all layers of an organisation," says Professor Haar.