Often triggered by extreme pressure, burnout is far from simply a buzz word for stress. We associate burnout with symptoms such as exhaustion, depression, and the inability to cope with simple tasks.

The term burnout first emerged in the 1970s when American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger described the consequences of severe stress primarily in the context of social professions. Today “burnout” is prevalent across all professions and ages. The World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout in their 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, therefore officially classifying burnout as a disease.

The extent of the mental health issue

It is clear that burnout can create a complexity of problems. The widespread presence of burnout is only roughly estimated. However, it is safe to say that it affects more employees than what is recognised. Furthermore, most peers and superiors are unaware that a colleague is affected by burnout. As a result, many employees in the workplace suffering with burnout do not reach out and ask for help. Many simply don’t recognize early signs, or don’t dare to ask for help, which could be due to various reasons.

Work life has shown to have a major impact on a person’s mental wellbeing. In fact, 42% employees have suffered from work-related stress or mental health issues at some point in their careers. Stress tolerance, however, varies between individuals; therefore, some might be more prone to stress-related conditions than others. The severity of burnout depends on its overall impact on work performance as well as the work place and environment as a whole.. Even if there are no concrete numbers on the extent of the issue in European offices, Nordic studies indicate that the prevalence of severe burnout is between 2-7%.

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Who cares?

To date, only 39% of European countries acknowledge burnout syndrome as an occupational disease. Few governmental systems provide opportunity to compensate diagnosed cases. However, the EU parliament recognizes and addresses the impact of the psychosocial work environment on human health. This awareness has initiated new systems for data collection in order to create action plans that reduce or prevent stress in the workplace.

Still, there is the question: Who is responsible for preventing mental conditions? The government? Employers? Society? Or employees themselves? The answer to this question could be either difficult or easy. Certainly all parties play a role in combating burnout at the workplace.

Loss for both health and business

While the impact of stress or reduced mental wellbeing on overall health and the individual’s private life are obvious, many companies cannot grasp the impact it has on business performance. Studies suggest that burnout costs businesses between $125 billion and $190 billion a year in healthcare. Additionally, the cost of burnout is also hidden in employee absence, reduced productivity, and the loss of talent and creativity. For instance, multitasking increases the time to complete a task by 25%. Now, add the complexity of burnout into the equation. The estimated costs can double to $300 billion a year, according to the American Stress Institute.

By looking at these numbers, company measures to create a workplace with lower stress exposure are insufficient. This ultimately leads to decreased prevalence of burnout and poor mental well being for employees. In the end, intact interventions could mean a win-win for both businesses and employees.

How to recognize the risks before it is too late

Haven’t you seen it coming? This is not a question you want to be asked. Evidence has shown that burnout can be avoided simply by asking employees how they feel at work. It may sound too simple, but increased awareness is always the first step towards finding the right solution.

There are many ways to track employee well-being. However, one of the most effective methods that provides real-time insight are surveys. Every company has different hot spots where employees are exposed to high levels of stress. Moreover, the design of prevention programs depends on a variety of factors. As you probably have noticed yourself, people cope with stress in different situations; therefore, a survey designed to examine the mental state of employees in your workplace should be utilized. A questionnaire may ask the following:

  • Is the employee’s workday / workweek sustainable?
  • Are tasks well balanced so there is time for “recovery”?
  • How does the individual cope with stress? Does it affect their private life (e.g. sleep)?
  • How can the employer help draw clear lines between work and private life?
  • Do colleagues respect others’ breaks and spare time?
  • Is there help available for those who may be affected? Do employees know where to go to for help?