Spill is all-in-one mental health support for employees through Slack. Spill was founded by Calvin Benton, a software engineer who grew up with both parents working as therapists, and wanted to use technology to make therapy dramatically easier to access for everyone.
Workplace burnout is on the rise.
Like wildfire, it’s spreading quickly through UK workplaces, with 43% of all sick days currently attributed to the phenomenon. To consider the financial significance alone, that’s a productivity loss of £5bn per year. The personal cost can be greater still.
As employers, employees, and as teammates, it’s important to know how to recognise when things aren’t right and take action.
Let’s take a look at 5 tips from us at Spill, a startup providing all-in-one mental health support through Slack.
1. Know what burnout is (and what it’s not)
When we talk about burnout, we’re talking about the combination of three emotions: exhaustion, negativity, and ineffectiveness. The root cause is psychological, centring on our goals and our expectations about what we do for a living.
You might think the main cause of burnout is a heavy workload, but that’s not quite true. Burnout is more about the way we manage our work than the sheer amount of it. You might also assimilate burnout with depression and tiredness. Whilst the symptoms do overlap, burnout is in fact different.
Psychoanalyst Josh Cohen explains this difference best. "The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety which cannot be silenced." Put simply, when you’re burnt out, life feels unwinnable.
Finally, burnout is not just a necessary byproduct of running a business – it is completely avoidable. When both employees and employers understand what burnout is, they can be ready to spot it when it starts happening, and take timely action against it. Keep reading to learn a few ways to proof against burnout.
2. Try to catch it early
As we’ve established, burnout is characterised by three symptoms: exhaustion, negativity, and ineffectiveness.
The order in which these symptoms arrive differs from person to person, but according to Spill’s therapists, negativity is often the easiest symptom to identify in yourself early on.
The following questions might help you spot any red flags:
- Are you quicker to shoot down other people's ideas?
- Do you hear yourself thinking cynical thoughts at work more often? Things like "I’ll never get that done on time" or "I'm not the right person for this project"
- Do you find yourself often assuming the worst in a work situation, or being overly cynical?
If you answered yes to any of the above, it might be time for a more thorough stock-take of burnout symptoms.
Are you (really) exhausted? Do small tasks at work feel impossible? Are you dropping balls on the job that you usually wouldn't? Do you feel less creative or slower to respond?
To get a better idea of whether you might be experiencing burnout, and to assess the severity, try taking Spill's 60-second online burnout symptoms test.
Spotting the signs of burnout easily means you can take time off and make changes to your relationship with work before things snowball and become more serious.
3. Burned out? Take time off
Once you’ve diagnosed burnout in yourself or a co-worker, it’s time to take immediate action.
The first step? Time off. Consider this first aid for the burned out worker.
It's important to take time off sooner rather than later, not least to prevent burnout from turning into depression. To make this time off as restorative as possible, we’d recommend spending time with close friends or family, exercising, playing games or learning something new.
However, taking time off is often easier said than done. If you manage an employee who needs time off, there are a few ways you can help put their mind at rest.
- To help dispel anxiety around taking time off, make sure senior managers are setting a good example by taking time off themselves. You might consider implementing a minimum quarterly holiday allowance.
- To ease potential work FOMO, make sure that project progress and team socials are shared on Slack. You can offer to check in on them on WhatsApp during their time off too.
- To reassure someone that their colleagues won’t suffer as a result of their time off, clearly communicate how the work will get done without causing unnecessary stress for others.
4. Identify the psychological root causes of your burnout
In the longer term, however, it’s time to identify what it is that’s not working at work. Something needs to change or you'll just burn out again.
Let’s go back to our understanding of burnout. Burnout is when work feels totally unwinnable. It’s exhaustion combined with a yearning for a sense of completion that cannot be attained.
So why might work feel unwinnable? Below are some common reasons why:
- Goals and targets feel genuinely unachievable
- Goalposts for success keep moving
- Not enough autonomy
- Don't feel like I'm learning new skills
- Rewards, recognition and workload feel unfairly distributed
- Work culture seems competitive or unsupportive
- Requirements of the job don't fit with my personality and strengths
- Requirements of the job don't fit with my values and dreams
A useful exercise is to go through each of these reasons and mark whether you would disagree, agree or strongly agree with each of them.
Next, address any statements with which you’ve ‘strongly agreed’, and explore practical changes you can make. If you don’t feel they have enough autonomy, why not explore co-operative goal setting with your manager? If you’ve identified a mismatch between the job requirements and your strengths, it might be time to find a new role.
5. Burnout-proof your workplace
Preventing burnout is best done by addressing the root problems. That means putting in place new habits and processes at an individual and company-wide level.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Make work feel more open and supportive by establishing ‘non-performance 121s’, which focus more on general wellbeing. Try making individual 'user manuals' so you can better understand other people's quirks and triggers. And why not suggest reverse mentoring, where a junior person leads an informal chat with a senior teammate.
Make targets feel achievable by breaking them down into smaller chunks, protecting your diary during busy periods, building holiday time into project planning, and putting on an out-of-office for a day every fortnight.
Gain a greater sense of autonomy by making a 'not to-do list' as well as a to-do list each week. This justifies why you've prioritised the work you have (our brains love a strong rationale for feeling reassured).
Make success goalposts clearer with shared OKRs, weekly PPPs (plans, progress and problems), and regular, honest team retrospectives.
For more practical tips on how to burnout-proof your workplace, check out Spill's guide to preventing burnout.