Employee burnout is the silent crisis happening throughout UK workplaces, with as many as one in six workers experiencing a mental health problem at any one time, and stress thought to be responsible for almost half of the working days lost in Britain due to health issues1. Is it more common in particular careers, or are we all vulnerable to the impact work can have on our mental wellbeing? The sad reality is that anyone can be affected, however it is undeniable that there are some key factors more common in some careers than others.
Employee burnout can be caused by multiple factors
Let’s start by looking at the potential causes of burnout as identified by Gallup2. These include unreasonable time pressures being placed on employees which can occur in any workplace, whilst at the same time not offering them any support. Good lines of communication may also be absent which can lead employees to feel unconnected and unimportant. Burnout can also arise from blurred lines of responsibility as employees go above and above their job remit, and they may also be given unmanageable or unachievable workloads or deadlines. Another common cause for employee burnout is poor treatment they may receive at work, which in severe cases may amount to bullying. It’s safe to say any of these situations can occur in any workplace.
All of these factors can lead to overwhelming work-related stress. They may also aggravate an existing mental health problem. Burnout overlaps significantly with common mental disorders and there is debate about whether they are indeed a different thing. If work-related stress reaches a point where it triggers an existing mental health problem, it becomes even harder to separate one from the other. Regardless, it is the responsibility of employers to help their employees manage stress and prevent overwhelming stress by improving conditions at work. Adjustments must be made to help employees manage mental health problems at work, regardless of the cause.
Is your job more likely to lead to employee burnout?
There are underlying factors that are more common in some careers than others, giving rise to the idea that some careers are more likely to affect your mental wellbeing. Jobs involving shift work or overtime for example, such as healthcare or retail, can have a real and detrimental impact on mental health. The work environment itself can also have an impact, for example jobs where you never get to sit down can be extremely tiring physically and mentally, and another type of stress results from jobs where you’re sitting down all day in front of a screen.
There are clearly industries more associated with some of the factors we have looked at here – construction for example, involves a lot of shift work, as does transport, hospitality, NHS, retail etc. Hospitality is notoriously tough both physically and mentally, not to mention recent COVID-related job uncertainty. At the other end of the spectrum most office jobs that require people to sit in front of a screen all day may also cause problems. Sedentary lifestyles and working environments are associated with physical and mental ill-health and it may turn out that this is exacerbated by home working. Burnout is even more likely if your job is highly pressurised such as sales, recruitment or trading. Sectors or industries where the business model is time-based such as professional services, make it hard for people to prioritise their own mental health and find time for themselves. For those workers in the low wage sectors and those working on zero-hours contracts, stress can simply result from experiencing financial stress which is a major cause of mental ill-health.
Looking at the bigger picture
Even if the conditions of the job itself are optimal, the lack of reward or job satisfaction you may experience can also have a substantial impact. Work has the potential to impact mental wellbeing if it isn’t rewarding or if you feel that you are making no contribution to the greater good. It may just be that you have a deep-rooted need or desire to work for a purposeful business that is changing the world in some way, however small. Coaching, caring or teaching for example, can be amongst the most rewarding careers, despite being likely to feature many of the common causes of burnout above.
So it seems that it’s not so much that a particular career might affect your mental wellbeing, more about the conditions created within that work environment, and whether the job itself is the right job for you. Meaning and purpose, adequate leadership and management, adequate financial remuneration sufficient to support oneself and ones loved ones, adequate rest – especially for shift-workers, provisions for those with existing mental or physical ill-health and disability, and consideration of the effects of sedentary professions are all necessary components of a healthy workplace.
It is time we started to think of the mental health effects of work in the same way we think of the physical safety of our workplaces.
1. Mental health and employers: refreshing the case for investment
2. Gallup Report