Are we in a burnout epidemic?

There’s something in the air right now. It feels a lot like exhaustion and looks a lot like languishing. It’s trying to be productive but never feeling accomplished. It’s being simultaneously easily distracted and on high alert. It’s where everything is just too much and feeling overwhelmed is the default.


I’m diagnosing it as collective burnout.


Some may say that burnout isn’t real, that it’s been fashioned up by ‘snowflake millennials’ who are too precious to handle real adult life. You only have to look at the recent reactions to sporting superstars, Naomi Osaka and Simone Bills, taking time out for their wellbeing - as discussed in a previous blog post - to prove that mental health still isn’t taken seriously.


We were well on the way to a burnout epidemic before the pandemic hit, but the toll of the last 18 months has hit everyone hard. From parents defining how best to parent during the summer holidays, while still working from home to others suffering from grief and a total lack of motivation, is anyone really ok? (If you answered yes, please leave quietly. Before you go though, feel free to shed some light on your coping abilities.)


A quick look at the number of employees quitting their jobs indicates we’re in a period called The Great Resignation, with many citing burnout as a reason for moving on. Since April 2021, 4 million US workers have quit their jobs for pastures new, and it’s not just our friends across the pond who are resigning in record numbers. A recent study by Personio and Opinium found that 38% of the UK working population are seriously thinking about changing their career path. That’s a lot of exit interviews to undertake.


Over the past few months, we’ve seen companies like Bumble, ASOS and LinkedIn approach annual leave differently to minimise burnout and retain talent. A recent survey by the workplace platform, Envoy, found that out of 1,000 UK workers four in five respondents had felt close to burnout over the past year. Bumble et al acted quicker than others. By shutting down the entire company for a day or week at a time, the idea was to help employees completely detach from the world of work. It meant no emails, no Zoom calls and no playing catch-up when back in the office - ultimately always leading to the question of whether the holiday was even worth it. So, are company-wide holidays the way forward? Short (ambiguous) answer: maybe.


With Bumble reporting the joint time-off a resounding success, the company-wide shutdown has since become a permanent fixture for staff. However, not all teams have the luxury of holidaying at the same time as everyone else. There’s always going to be someone who wants to contact you about the service or product being sold. If shutting down the entire office is to catch on within the corporate world, departments like Customer Service, Warehouse Operations and even Social Media teams need to feel confident they will be given the same benefits as their colleagues. Staggering time off is one solution to ensure everyone reaps the same rewards, but that means someone will always be picking up the proverbial slack rather than feeling part of the company-wide zen-a-thon.


Admittedly, I’d love a week off. I work in social media and, speaking from experience, I struggle to switch off. However, while this extra time off sounds great, I wonder whether it’s more of a short-term solution? Once you head back to work and discover that the same conditions and chronic stress inducers are still in place, do the feelings of burnout seep back in because nothing has really changed? A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health (2009) found that time off work led to a modest decrease in exhaustion and a modest increase in life satisfaction. Within two to four weeks after resuming work, those benefits had vanished, and levels of exhaustion had returned to pre-annual leave levels.


So, what can we do?


First, we all need to stop glamorising the daily grind and being busy all the time. We’ve developed this learned behaviour where we need to be present, switched on and contactable at all times of the day. We seem to glorify exhaustion, calendars full of meetings and never-ending to-do lists. Enough, enough now, everyone


We’re all different and we all have different needs. A week off might be the best thing ever for one person but could be the worse for another. It’s currently ‘business as unusual’ so it’s up to companies to ask each employee what works for them and how they can benefit individually. There’s no one size fits all route to tackling mental health.


Realise that rest is productive (this is something I need to tell myself more). If taking more time off isn’t possible, make sure to build some downtime into your day. Take that full lunch hour, close the laptop at 5:30 pm sharp, make sure to avoid checking emails out of hours. These might seem small, but the benefits will be huge.


Step away from Netflix. We all love it when we find a series we can’t stop watching, but seriously, sleep is much more important. Put down the remote and grab an extra hour in bed, it’ll do you the world of good. You can thank us later.


Talk to someone. This might be the hardest advice on this list, but a problem shared is a problem halved. Just talking about how you feel and answering honestly to the ‘how are you?’ question will make you feel less alone.


And lastly, keep the pool tables and free tea, coffee and fruit (delete as appropriate). These aren’t the perks employees need now (did they ever?!). What might be more beneficial is cracking down on evening and weekend emails, reducing the number of meetings and encouraging flexible working. Just a few thoughts…


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