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Work Burnout: Symptoms and Prevention Tips for SME Owners

a businesswoman exercising to avoid work burnout

With many of us working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our work/life balance has been severely disrupted. While remote work has allowed businesses to maintain some level of productivity during this period of time, it’s also put an incredible amount of pressure on employees to perform at their usual standard, while also homeschooling kids, caring for elderly or vulnerable family members and performing other household duties at the same time, which can all too easily lead to work burnout.

What are the causes and signs of work burnout?

Although there’s not one universal work burnout definition, it describes a state of emotional exhaustion. Some of the signs of burnout may include procrastination, irritability, hopelessness, lack of interest in regular activities, apathy, frustration, loss of confidence, boredom, or fatigue. Although work burnout itself is not classified as an illness, depression, insomnia, anxiety, and drug or alcohol abuse can all sometimes manifest as arger symptoms of burnout . It can also develop in the form of physical health problems, like headaches, stomach pains or bowel issues. Even the World Health Organisation has recognised work burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon.’

As well as a work/life imbalance, work burnout can occur for a number of reasons: long hours, feeling isolated – especially during COVID – job insecurity, extreme workloads, lack of support, bullying, harassment, lack of resources, discrimination, a dysfunctional workplace. According to research from Asana, at least 77% of workers in Australia and New Zealand had experienced work burnout in the past year, while only 15% felt ‘completely heard’ by their employers when it came to their mental health concerns.

As a manager or business owner, you have an obligation to look after the health and wellbeing of your staff, and should be able to recognise the signs and symptoms of burnout. It’s also essential to take your own mental health seriously if you happen to experience burnout.

Here are some ways to try to prevent burnout and work-related stress in the workplace.

Develop a routine to avoid work burnout

Treat working at home the same as working at the office. Try to create structure by setting standard work hours. Get dressed and complete your morning routine like you normally would. Find a quiet area to work and keep a clean and organised workspace. Put together a to-do list, then prioritise the most important tasks first. By creating a routine, you can avoid work burnout and stay productive while drawing a clear line between work life and personal life.

Establish boundaries

Boundaries at work are essential, especially while working from home. Set limits with family members or colleagues – close your door when making important calls and emails. Learn to step away from your desk every now and then to clear your head. Take short breaks by going for a walk or doing simple exercise.

Focus on work tasks during work hours, and turn off phone and email notifications when you’re off the clock. Inform colleagues of your schedule, so they can get in touch at a more appropriate time.

Communicate regularly, and not just by email

Having a support network is crucial, especially during a pandemic. Relieve stress and burnout by scheduling meetings with employees, so they can share their thoughts and feelings. Provide clear and realistic expectations for them to fulfil. Recognise when they do a good job and celebrate their successes.

Practicing good conflict resolution and having a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and discrimination are also key. Unresolved tension – whether at home or in the office – can impede our ability to work, so try to identify any problems that might arise calmly and quickly. With the right tools and by examining how our emotions affect others, we can then begin to solve them by setting ground rules or by reaching a fair compromise.

Try to combat work burnout by encouraging employees to collaborate as much as possible with one another, which can help sharpen their skills and expertise, as well as allow them to reaffirm goals and share ideas. 

Most importantly invest time engaging in real conversation, either in person, as a walking meeting, or through video conference or phone to help boost workplace morale. In a predominantly digital world, a little bit of real human contact can go a long way to establishing rapport and engagement, and that can get lost over channels like email and text. Regular one-on-one meetings where you check in with your staff are crucial, and provide an opportunity to discuss non-work related items and establish a personal connection. 

To learn more about improving engagement, check out Staff Engagement: 5 Strategies to Boost Productivity.

Take time for yourself to prevent work burnout

Although being a manager or business owner is a 24/7 job, we also have to make time to relax and unwind. Find a hobby, sport or activity you love that’s fun, challenging and rewarding. Try to tune out by reading or listening to music. Eat healthily and drink plenty of water. Unplug from devices after hours so you can spend time with family and friends. Set a regular bedtime and get a good night’s sleep in order to improve memory and restore health.

Activities such as yoga, meditation or tai chi can improve mindfulness, which can help you focus on and improve overall performance. Regular exercise can also help you to avoid experiencing work burnout in the long term.

Learn to say ‘no’

Remember: It’s okay to say no to more work and to take a step back when you need it.

Take a mental health day, if needed. De-stigmatise work-related stress and encourage a safe, supportive and inclusive work environment, where employees can speak up about issues concerning their duties and prospects. Allow them to have more control over how they work to increase job satisfaction and instil a greater sense of agency. Pose realistic deadlines and clearly inform them of their priorities to help keep them motivated. Learn to build up resilience to decrease the risk of burnout by ‘switching off,’ setting boundaries and having healthy outlets outside of work.

You can also fight off chronic stress by offering more flexible work options, which can help provide more balance between personal and professional responsibilities.

Don’t be afraid to seek help

Don’t be afraid to seek help

Help is available if emotional burnout at work has reached a point where it’s become unmanageable.

Let staff know that they can take advantage of employee assistance programs, stress management training, mental health benefits or other relevant services at any time. Encourage them to reach out to family and friends for emotional support.

Learn to recognise the signs of work burnout at work and other red flags by educating yourself. Check out resources from Safe Work Australia, Headspace, SANE Australia, Heads Up or the Black Dog Institute.

If you or someone else is struggling with the impact of work burnout on mental health, you also can also contact R U OK?, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. or make an appointment with your HR manager, doctor or a psychologist.


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