Should work be restricted to ‘normal’ office hours, as advent of home working pushes some staff to their limit?

That’s the question being heavily debated at the moment, as some spokespeople and unions call for the Government to mandate a legally binding “right to disconnect”. The call comes as workers highlight the blurring of lines between work and home life, with the normalising of home working encouraging round the clock checking of emails, answering of phones, and jumping on video calls. Technology, combined with the necessitated pandemic responses have created new challenges for employees, many of which employers have been ill-equipped to respond to.

A “right to disconnect” has been in place in France for four years, and Ireland introduced a code of conduct for employers a few months ago. Similar could potentially be introduced in the UK Employment Bill which is due to be published later this year, more clearly enshrining realistic expectations between employees and employers. Speaking in an interview with the BBC Claire Mullaly, an IT Consultant from Northern Ireland points out “Burning people out isn’t good for workers or employers. We’ve got to give people time to switch off and recharge.”

While being ‘always on’ can be the natural disposition of some employees, for others it is driven by the blatant or understated expectation of employers who are driven by profits, not people. While some employers won’t be aware that they’re placing undue pressure on their team members, they are setting their own example by making calls and responding to emails in the evenings, overnight, early mornings, or at weekends. As Colin Frensham, Managing Director of Tidal Training comments “Culturally, many businesses are extremely supportive of their employees, providing structure to enable work-life balance, but they underestimate the aggregate cost of constantly being ‘on’. Burn out is a very real issue, and even before an employee reaches the stage of complete emotional, physical and mental breakdown, they will be exhibiting signs of stress. This is naturally not what most employers will be wanting for their team members at a personal level, but nor will they want it at a business level. Stressed or burned out team members are less productive, less motivated, and often deliver work of an inferior quality, all in the name of extra hours in the short-term to give the impression of being a good employee. It’s one of those situations where less is definitely more, and good employers will be pursuing methods to help their staff, both structurally as an organisation, and personally at a human level.”

What is burn out?

Burn out is the result of extreme and prolonged stress leading to a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. It results in a person feeling overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands, sapping energy and curbing motivation and productivity. While this is not ideal on a personal level, it also leaves the business with reduced capacity and the need to manage an exhausted person, all of which is entirely preventable with the right measures.

Identifying signs of a burn out

Once a person is pushed beyond their limits, the signs are instantly recognisable. A person who is ‘stressed’ will typically be highly engaged and potentially hyperactive, have emotions which are described as ‘overactive’, alongside sudden losses of energy. Stress is primarily a physical impact on the body, and may be sustained in the short- or long-term. Burn out on the other hand happens after a period of sustained or extreme stress, and is typified by complete disengagement, blunted and disinterested emotional state, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, and often a complete loss of motivation, ideals and hopes. Naturally, stress and burn out are both on the same spectrum, so while limits are personal to each employee, it is entirely possible to identify the same or similar progression along the spectrum, and intervene when necessary.

Preventing burn out

Good employers will or should have practices and procedures in place both to prevent burn out at a systemic, environmental level for employees, as well as recognising and intervening in situations which may lead to burn out. At a systemic level, this involves creating expectations, realities and a culture in which it is expected that employees ‘switch off’, and which prioritises mental health and wellbeing at all levels. This will require employee buy-in at every level as well as systemic and emotional monitoring to prevent extended periods of extreme stress.

Even with the best preparation and planning, it is still also essential to instigate monitoring for potential burn out too. Burn out is not always exclusively related to work; work may simply be exacerbating a period of extreme stress in an employee’s personal life. Regardless of the source of the stress, happy and healthy employees with good mental and physical states will be more productive, motivated and effective for your business, generating more ‘bang for the buck’.

At Tidal Training, we offer a series of training courses for employers and businesses, helping to prioritise mental health. At a planning level our Professional Boundaries Training course helps to create a positive wellbeing culture within the organisation, setting and respecting appropriate boundaries from the off. Meanwhile our Mental Health Awareness course and our Stress Management Introduction Training will teach you to recognise and redress any high stress scenarios you or your team is facing, and help you to create a positive employment environment. Speak to our team on 01242 371 999 for more information.