Last year the World Health Organisation recognised “burnout” for the first time in its classification of diseases. It defines “burnout” as “mental or physical exhaustion caused by excessive or prolonged stress and a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It highlights the three characteristics:

  1. Feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. An increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity or cynicism relating to one’s job.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

For many people who were reading that definition they would be saying yes or would be ticking off the criterion, due to the pandemic, with the stresses and strains of the last year or so only adding to the problem.

Stress is normally a short lived thing or tied to a specific goal so is not harmful. If the stress feels never ending and comes with feelings of emptiness, apathy and hopelessness, it may be indicative of burnout.

A recent case involving a firm of solicitors that has been litigated through the Courts highlights the risk of employers not taking this issue seriously. In this particular case, the employee concerned was a high flyer – for a period of around 5 years he had been one of the most high billing or income generating fee earners at the law practice, being in a leadership position, in charge of one of the firm’s offices. Criticisms levelled at the employer included, failing to reduce his working hours or ensuring that he was taking his annual leave. He had been dedicating 15 hours a day to work and the employer faced criticism for not having picked up on that and done something about it.

It seems that when the condition began to manifest including the employee acting out a character and making an inappropriate joke which was then used as a disciplinary matter, the firm failed to put in place a structured plan for offering support. In particular, when the employee had 7 weeks’ ill-health, they didn’t take any steps to find out about the extent of his condition. If they had done so, they may have been more aware of his fragility and the problem that they were dealing with.

In particular, at the point at which he has tipped over into “burnout”, the firm had a duty to put their minds to how they could prevent the risk to his health that his job was causing. The problem is that the firm took the perhaps “usual” reaction of getting him to relinquish his management position. Indeed it was found that one witness had said that he should “drop back into midfield” and leave the captaincy to somebody else. The Judge in the case found that that was grossly insensitive. Of course the firm might have had genuine concerns over the impact on colleagues but there wasn’t really any meaningful communication around the issue or understanding of the workload issues or what was necessary.

These sorts of cases are going to be particularly relevant given all the evidence about people working from home, working greater hours, juggling all the other stresses that come with a pandemic and inadequacies in many cases of employers to be prepared to deal with these sorts of issues.

So what things can an employer be doing to prevent “burnout”?

  1. Actively encourage employees to take holiday, including those in senior leadership positions and create an environment where people are allowed to genuinely switch off, which will require senior leaders to lead by example in this regard.
  2. Reconfigure email so they send only during set hours.
  3. Encourage all managers to check in with the members of their team as regards workload. It is a culturally normally thing to happen for work to be juggled around between different people to alleviate the pressure points?
  4. Encourage employees to speak up if they are starting to feel overwhelmed, explaining that support will be available if they do, including the possibility of devoting extra resource to take on workload.
  5. Train managers to spot the signs when somebody is beginning to become overwhelmed and not cope and to not be afraid to intervene when they see that happening.
  6. Refer the employee to occupational health immediately for guidance on other measures that can be taken.
  7. Have an employee led position about what they think needs to happen – they know themselves best.
  8. At this stage, emphasise that any changes to job description or duties are temporary whilst you are supporting them to recover.
  9. Simple things can apply, such as permitting the employee to say no to new tasks.
  10. In any return to work/management plan, it will be useful to schedule regular breaks including identifying what activities the employee is going to be doing to help them reduce the feelings of burnout in terms of self-care and exercise etc.

If the medical condition the employee is suffering from becomes a long term thing then it could become a disability which is protected by the Equality Act, in which case the duty to make reasonable adjustments is going to apply. Where an employer has not tackled the issue early enough, if the employee goes through periods of absence and return to work with little changing, you can see how a pattern could be established that leads into disability territory.

In the particular case involved, the employer was potentially liable for the employees losses that resulted from his employment relationship coming to an end and not tackling the issue effectively.

Refreshing Law
4 May 2021