Confusing stress and 'burnout' can cause significant harm

Confusing ‘corporate burnout’ with much less serious levels of workplace stress can cause significant harm, according to research by leadership, management and coaching provider Awbery Management.

In his book Combating Corporate Burnout Howard Awbery, managing director of Awbery Management, defines burnout as a complete inability to function, get out of bed, or undertake work in any capacity.

Awbery found that it is most likely to affect those in their twenties and thirties, and usually occurs during the first 10 years of a career.

Burnout follows a downward spiral in performance, which often goes unnoticed by the sufferer but is observed by colleagues, and can result in physical symptoms including neck and back pain, recurring illness, and disrupted sleep.

“We need to stop describing everyday stress as ‘burnout',” said Awbery. “Burnout involves an overwhelming exhaustion, resulting in disillusionment and a dysfunctional attitude towards work, colleagues and family.

“Describing everyday stress as ‘burnout’ denigrates the seriousness of the condition and mitigates the culpability of the organisations who have stood by and watched it happen.”

Separate research from law firm Gunnercooke found that burnout is particularly prominent in the legal industry, with almost three-quarters of legal professionals (73%) either concerned about or currently suffering from it.

Causes cited include long hours (58%), difficult clients (38%), high levels of interruptions each day (35%) and low pay (23%). Other areas of complaint included strained working relationships with bosses, partners and other colleagues.

Co-founder of Gunnercooke Sarah Goulbourne said: “We should not underestimate the importance of happiness and wellbeing at work, especially in an industry where pressures are high and the impact of unhappiness can result in serious health concerns. These results really demonstrate that more needs to be done to provide legal professionals with the support they need to combat unhappiness and avoid work-related health problems.”

The Work Foundation researcher Zofia Bajorek said the expectation that employees be available 24-hours a day could be a factor. “Being expected to be available all of the time could cause an increase in undue pressure,” she told HR magazine.

“We have to ask if smartphones are a blessing or a curse. An expectation of being reachable 24/7 is going to lead to physical and mental burnout.”

Bajorek also expressed concern regarding colleagues and managers often noticing warning signs of burnout before the sufferer themselves. “Are we willing to bring up wellbeing at work?” she asked. “Are line managers trained to have these conversations? Or are we just focused on output?”