A burning issue of our times
19th January 2021
The country is braced for the peak of the winter wave of Covid-19, and concerned not only by the rising toll of casualties, but also the inordinate pressure on NHS staff. As managers and HR professionals, we too need to be mindful of the toll on the mental health of our own people, now more than ever.
A lot of us struggle at this time of year, anyway, due to a variety of factors, including the dark, often inclement weather. January is traditionally associated with a spike in low mood, depression and demotivation among society and thus employees. This is compounded by ever increasing workloads and the potential for burnout.
The problem was getting worse long before the pandemic struck. As HR News reported last year, there’s evidence of a consistent year-on-year increase in ‘burnout’. The number of people searching Google for symptoms of burnout has increased steadily in recent years. The total number of searches has jumped by more than 40% a year, on average, since 2017. And January sees the ‘burnout spike’. It reached a record level last winter – and that was pre-Covid-19.
The evidence and mental health specialists suggest that January 2021’s spike in occupational burnout will be worse than ever. More people will need more support to deal with stress if they are to maintain their mental health, work focus and productivity.
A survey of 2,000 employees of large UK companies – published by the insurer Aviva in December – probed the burnout factors and mental health impacts arising from the pandemic. Heightened anxiety was having the effect of making people work longer hours, take fewer sick days and a general feeling that they were less fulfilled by both work and life.
The survey repeated research done in February 2020, revealing that the proportion of people who’d taken no time off for sickness had risen to 84% (from 67%) and more than a third (34%) said they carried on working when unwell.
Working from home may have improved the work-life balance of those who’ve been saved a long daily commute. But not only has the novelty worn off for some, any benefits are heavily outweighed for others by the pressures of home schooling, cramped conditions, unreliable broadband, and the winter contrast with the glorious spring of the first lockdown.
The incursion of work into domestic life means the apparently liberating ‘working from home’ has morphed into the oppressive feeling of ‘living with work’. Almost half of employees (44%) in the Aviva survey said they never fully switch off from work. It’s worse among young adults (18-24 years): 63% regularly check emails outside of work hours, up from 48% in February 2020.
So more than half feel they were neglecting their health – physical (58%) or mental (55%) – due to actual, or perceived, work pressures. The proportion of employees who were ‘completely happy’ went down – from 20% to 13%.
In another survey by a building design company in September 2020, more than half of respondents (51%) said they were working beyond their contractual hours. This rose to 59% for millennials. Similarly, the ‘always on’ culture was troubling 58% of these younger home workers, while just under half (48%) of the over-50s complained that they hadn’t had a proper break since the lockdown. These worrying trends can only have escalated in lockdown number three.
In large organisations HR practitioners cannot spot the symptoms in every department and location, particularly when people are working from home or on furlough. So we all need to be aware and vigilant.
It’s more important than ever for line managers to keep lines of communication open through informal catch-ups with their team, including furloughed employees (who also receive regular updates from our CEO and have the option of learning new skills from materials we make available for them).
To make up for the watercooler moments that many of us miss, we have been trialling an alternative online. Every couple of weeks, we hold Zoom forums in which hundreds of employees are invited and then randomly split into smaller groups of around five people. The idea is that people in the groups can have an informal chat and also hear what’s happening in the rest of the company from networking with each other. To help get the conversation started, we pose a few questions or ask them to watch a short video. The feedback has been fantastic with 93% of attendees saying the forums are ‘valuable’ or ‘extremely valuable’. It’s one way we can help to reduce the feeling of isolation.
We have also trained over 400 employees in First Aid for Mental Health Awareness during the pandemic, so that our employees understand the problem better and can recognise the symptoms and triggers as well as know where they can direct colleagues to support.
To prevent the blurring of boundaries between work and personal time, we encourage employees to plan their day at home carefully, and take regular exercise. Our wellbeing programme is comprehensive and well utilised and all our people have access to our Employee Assistance Programmes and confidential advice or counselling 24/7 by phone or online.
We recently launched the You@SUEZ platform, providing employee benefits and a variety of additional informative material and support for wellbeing, including short films and recipes for eating well.
In previous posts I’ve outlined our Wellness for All programme and its shift to online training and events. Our series of weekly Wellness for All webinars continues. They are backed up by guides, and cover topics ranging from understanding stress to managing anxiety, and Seasonal Affective Disorder to resilience. We are also developing resilience training that we intend to roll out across the company.
These guides identify the symptoms and effects of deteriorating mental health – from the mental to physical, behaviour to mindset. We want our people to be able to recognise symptoms of stress and anxiety in themselves, colleagues, team members or their families, and to help them pre-empt or overcome the mental health problems that can result.
No guide, app or indeed HR or line manager has all the answers. We can only combat burnout by raising awareness of this real and growing problem, encouraging open communication, and putting all available means of support in place, while looking out for each other.