Burnout Breaks: Excuse to Miss Work or Genuine Way to Cope with Pandemic Panic?

Employees of many organisations including dating app Bumble and sportswear giant Nike breathed a sigh of relief amid the global pandemic after their employers gave them a week’s off to ‘de-stress’, spend time with loved ones, and recover from added pressures of sickness.

Through the uncertainty of the pandemic, anxiety of catching the deadly infection and with no time to grieve our loved ones who succumbed to the viral infection, the Covid-19 crisis has shocked us into realising the significance of our mental health. In such testing times, burnout breaks have turned out to be a silver lining.

Despite how colloquial the term ‘burnout’ has become, the concept originated in a strict clinical setting. Coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, it referred to the consequences of severe stress and high ideals within the helping professions like medicine and social work. However, burnout never quite became a serious issue, at least in the medical fraternity perhaps because there was no consensus as to how it should be measured, much less diagnosed.

Burnout is now diagnosable

As per the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is now a diagnosable disease. It is generally understood as reduced interest and productivity in one’s work precipitated by overwork. The health body has included it in ICD-11, the organisation’s diagnostic manual, and as per CNN, the criteria listed for diagnosing burnout are: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to job and reduced professional efficacy. Ria Sharma (name changed on request), a software engineer who works in a multinational firm says, “No one cares for your mental health. It is just a part of weekly emails, which I am sure no one bothers to even open and read, leave alone following them.”

Talking about her ‘no-working hours’, Sharma said, “Work from home has no boundaries of working hours. We are constantly chasing deadlines, working and attending meetings 24×7. Of course, we are burned out, but quitting the job or asking for a break seems like a luxury, at least during the pandemic.”

How big a problem is burnout? 

“It is a big problem,” said Srimoyee Roy, a Bengaluru-based counselling psychologist. “Burnouts have become a major issue, as there are no specific working hours. Everyone is constantly on their working desks, which has resulted in exhaustion, fatigue, lack of focus among young adults and parents.”

Another psychotherapist Rhea Gandhi, a Mumbai-based practitioner, said, “During the pandemic, the entire workforce from top to button needs to realise the importance of having working hours for the employees.”In a survey conducted by Telus International, a leading global customer experience and digital solutions provider, in 2020 found that of 1,000 Americans who have been working for their employers from home, nearly 80 per cent said they would consider quitting their current position for a job that focused more on employee mental health.

In another such survey, it was found that in more than 50 per cent of the respondents, the sleep pattern was impacted negatively with 40 per cent saying they were not getting enough sleep and 13 per cent maintaining that they did not get any sleep. Of the 1,000 survey participants, 39 per cent reported feeling less healthy physically and 45 per cent said they felt less healthy mentally since working from home due to Covid.

Burnouts are not just making an entire population vulnerable to mental illnesses, They are also an added burden on the distressed economy. In January, research by Deloitte found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn a year, and that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions they got £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.

Are we addressing the elephant in the room?

We know, helping employees recover from the trauma of the pandemic is the right thing to do, but psychotherapist Gandhi said, “It is absolutely essential for organisations to address the pertaining issue but in a particular way, not in a way that comes out as performative. They can think of the mental health issue at the core level and make changes in how the entire system works.”

Studies have shown that constant stress, panic among workers isn’t conducive for their productivity and output. It not only impacts the whole team but degrades the overall quality of work.

“Employees from our workplace are distressed at home, not because they are overworked, but they are facing challenges of this sudden digital revolution and the organisation pays no heed,” said a 50-year-old export manager, who works at a private firm, and wished to remain anonymous.

Are burnout breaks a long-term solution?

Burnout breaks are not going to solve the larger issue, said Gandhi. “The whole idea of a burnout break is that the employees have pushed themselves to a level where they need a recovery break. The organisations should be more focused on preventive measures so that employees do not reach that burnout level,” Gandhi emphasised.

Further talking about preventive measures organisations can take, Gandhi said offering flexible working hours, maintaining a work-life balance and making bigger changes in the entire working of the system will address the issue of employee burnout.

“Following strict professional and personal boundaries, having routines, and regular training sessions from experts will also act as preventive measures in the burnout epidemic,” Roy said.

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