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By Carien Grobler

Deputy Digital Editor

SA’s burnout crisis: High stress and low engagement plague workforce

Feeling tired is a natural state of wanting sleep or rest. If you are tired, it doesn’t mean you have burnout.

According to the latest Gallup report, 36% of the South African workforce experience excessive daily stress and more than 71% are either disengaged or actively disengaged at work – some of the alarming signs of burnout.

This is not surprising considering that according to the Mental State of the World Report, Mental State of the World Report, South Africa ranks 69 out of 71 countries and has the greatest percentage of distressed or struggling respondents at 35%.

Studies have found the dedicated and committed are particularly prone to burnout – a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. The condition is classified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization for its debilitating impact on productivity, bottom-line and the overall health of especially, top achievers.

A study revealed most feel companies aren’t doing enough to prevent burnout; two-thirds have experienced it.

Prof Renata Schoeman, Head of Healthcare Leadership at Stellenbosch Business School says burnout is a workplace phenomenon that cannot be confused by daily stressors of everyday personal life responsibilities.

“Burnout is a persistent feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion that frequently comes with pessimism and disengagement from work. The culprits are usually an imbalance of resources and/or demands on what is expected of you at work versus the availability of time, finances, training, support systems, mentorship and other resources needed for you to do your job.”

“Another contributing factor is conflicting values: either a mismatch between your personal values and the organisational values, or, the officially stated values of the organisation and the values in action.”

The cost of burning out

Schoeman says burnout could and should be avoided but when it’s left unmanaged, the monetary and non-monetary cost of burnout to the economy and business is unavoidably high.

Health economists estimate that unaddressed mental health conditions cost the South African economy R161 billion per year due to lost days of work, presenteeism (being at work but unwell), and premature mortality.

“The direct cost of burnout leads to increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, poor work performance, mistakes and high employee turnover – all quantifiably impacting the organisation’s bottom line.”

“The hidden, indirect cost for businesses is the institutional loss of knowledge when employees leave, the time and cost spent on training and upskilling new employees, and the negative impact on organisational culture. Once an organisation is known for its toxic work environment, it will be difficult to attract top talent.”

Schoeman says employees sacrifice health for work; burnout shows slowly.

“Although not a condition that is medically diagnosed, if left untreated, burnout can lead to mental health conditions that require medical treatment – this is not about simply taking a few weeks holiday or resting to overcome the constant state of depletion.”

Burnout contributes to depression, anxiety and other stress-related disorders, impacting one’s quality of living, relationships and outlook on life.  Physically, prolonged burnout can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal issues and weakened immune systems.”

The difference between fatigue and burnout

Feeling tired is normal when you need rest. Feeling tired doesn’t always mean burnout. Resting by sleeping, taking breaks, or doing enjoyable activities can help.

Schoeman warns however that “viewing burnout as something your work has done to you, is not helpful.

“Organisations do have a responsibility to invest in preventing burnout and promoting mental wellness however if you view your discomfort as purely ‘work has done this to me’, it will contribute to a lack of autonomy and passivity and generate victim mentality.”

She advocates that the best defence for burnout is to limit the possibility from the start by practising self-care every day (enough sleep, exercise, eating healthy, participating in leisure and creative activities and spirituality) to ensure that one does not ignore any of the signs of burnout.

Strategies for managing burnout in the workplace

Organisations can employ strategies to prevent and address employee burnout by means of: 

  • Recognise and reward performance. Although high performers expect to work hard, they do not thrive when taken for granted. Acknowledge high performers with tangible rewards such as bonuses, promotions, or additional vacation days. Public recognition can also boost morale and motivation.
  • Distribute workload evenly. Companies depend on star performers, but it’s important to distribute work fairly to avoid overburdening them. Implement systems to manage workload effectively. High performers might feel unfairly treated due to higher standards, leading to resentment.
  • Avoid bias in task allotment. Explain the rationale for choosing a team member to prevent excessive reliance on the top performer.
    • Similarity bias: “I’ll give the task to the person who shares my view on the subject.”
    • Expedience bias: “I assume this person has the most capacity for this task.”
    • Experience bias: “I think this person completed a similar task before.”
    • Distance bias: “This person is already on the phone with me, so I’ll just ask them.”
    • Safety bias: “I don’t feel I can trust anyone else for this task.”
  • Provide support and resources. Offer professional development opportunities to help high achievers manage their workload and stress. Ensure access to mental health resources and encourage their use.
  • Encourage work-life boundaries. A culture of overwork and the belief that working long hours signifies dedication and commitment can perpetuate a cycle of overworking, as high performers feel pressured to meet these expectations to demonstrate their value as employees. Promote policies that support work-life balance and boundaries, such as flexible working hours and remote work options. Encourage employees to take breaks and use their annual leave.
  • Foster an open communication culture. Create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their workload and stress levels. Regular check-ins with high achievers – not only those that “struggle” – to help identify and address issues before they escalate.
  • Rotate high performers across projects and roles for new challenges and learning opportunities while varying workload.
  • Provide mentorship and coaching. Pair high performers with mentors or offer them coaching opportunities to develop strategies to manage their workload.
  • Tailor personal development plans. Invest in your high performers with personalised plans that can enrich their career goals and personal well-being.
  • Promote delegation for high performers to manage workload and upskill team members efficiently.
  • Prioritize wellness programs for high performers to help them set boundaries, take breaks, and care for themselves, preventing burnout.

* 1 – 5 July 2024 is Corporate Mental Health Week

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