Don’t let burnout become a business issue

As I sit down to write this, the sun is shining but sadly I am not outside enjoying it. Like most people, I am between meetings and trying to keep focused on the important things while navigating my way through emails and messages that come with my role as chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England.

Despite best intentions I will get distracted and will have to come back to this piece a few times before I finish it.

I love my job. It is a privilege: busy, often challenging and always rewarding. I often wish there were a few more hours in the day.

And at the same time, I am preparing for the whole organisation to close, totally, for our Summer Wellbeing Week which runs from 19-30 August. 

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That is five working days where nobody in the central team will be working. For some business leaders, myself included in the past, this would be an unthinkable and perhaps unacceptable loss of time, activity, income and impact.

But to me and more importantly, the employees at MHFA England, our Wellbeing Weeks – we also close for a week in December – are a vital part of our mental health and wellbeing strategy.   

Despite life supposedly starting to feel more ‘normal’, all around me I see and hear that people are tired – exhausted even. As we move through 2022 and the worst uncertainty of the pandemic, we are faced with the worst cost of living crisis since records began, chronic staff shortages and a war on talent, heat waves emphasising the climate crisis and disrupted travel.

Poor mental health now costs UK employers up to £56 billion a year and a recent survey from Glassdoor, found that reports of burnout among UK workers have almost doubled over the past year, hitting record levels. So, how can giving Wellbeing Weeks where the whole organisation closes, help prevent burnout and boost workplace wellbeing?

Firstly, and most importantly we know that work ‘done well’ is good for our wellbeing and that wellbeing and productivity fuel one another so Wellbeing Weeks or days, need to be built into a whole organisation approach to wellbeing and high performance.

They should not be seen as a bolt-on but part of a relentless focus on building an organisational culture that is set for success. This means having a mental health and wellbeing strategy that works for your people and your business.

Now is the time to get this focus right. If any good can come out of the pandemic, it’s that organisations take the time to reconsider their mental health and wellbeing policies and reassess their culture.

In Deloitte’s most recent report on mental health and employers, one of the key recommendations was that leaders should commit to learning from the pandemic, especially regarding the causes and implications of stress and burnout among employees. 

The pandemic is a vital opportunity to tackle the stigma associated with poor mental health and stimulate open conversations. The healthier and happier the workforce, the more productive employees will be. From designing avoidable stress out of processes and systems, to putting healthy job design first and being flexible so everyone can thrive at work – all help to create a more mentally healthy workplace.   

For us, at MHFA England our two Wellbeing Weeks are a small part of our overall wellbeing strategy. With a vision to improve the mental health of nation, we aim to walk the talk in everything we do. We have worked hard to set up the right approach to support our staff and create something that works for us at MHFA England, but each organisation will be different.

As employers we must recognise the importance of our teams (and ourselves) taking annual leave and taking time off to relax and recuperate. When interviewed, nearly three quarters (72%) of workers thought that annual leave was an effective way to reduce burnout but only three in five employees used their full holiday entitlement.

Employees experiencing burnout are likely to feel depleted of energy and exhausted from coping with an increased workload and stress for an extended period of time.

This can result in reduced productivity and negative feelings or complete apathy towards one’s job. Not only does this effect the employee and their delivery but it can impact a whole team if not managed appropriately.

Rest and recuperation are key to self-care and offering wellbeing breaks on top of annual leave can help combat burnout.

There is a lot of preparation that goes into closing for the week so our instructor members and clients are not negatively impacted. This means that our central team is reassured that projects are not left unattended, or deadlines missed and therefore staff tell us – and I know from my own experience – the temptation to check-in on tasks and emails is greatly reduced.

We purposefully ensure that all staff are off at the same time. This means no one fears returning to an overflowing inbox or a ‘to do’ list that cancels out any benefits of a break from work.

Completely closing for the Wellbeing Week sends a powerful message from senior leaders that people at every level of an organisation are encouraged to rest and connect with their lives and interests outside of the workplace. It demonstrates that we can all prioritise our mental health and wellbeing and be a high performing, high impact social enterprise.

If you would like support to deliver a workplace wellbeing strategy, visit Startwell is our diagnostic service, helping organisations unlock the positive value of employee mental health.

Simon Blake is CEO of Mental Health First Aid England