SINGAPORE: Burnout has been recognised as an occupational phenomenon with an expanded definition by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which met at the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva earlier this week.
Numerous research and clinical studies have shown that burnout has serious physical, psychological and work–life consequences, from reduced work performance, productivity and work–life balance, to increased chronic depression, prolonged fatigue and cardiovascular disease.
For some, burnout is also a precursor to premature death such as a sudden stroke or suicide.
In his book Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford University Professor of Organisational Behaviour Jeffrey Pfeffer found that long working hours have led to chronic stress and burnout, subsequently pushing workers to commit suicide in some cases.
The WHO recognising the caustic effects of burnout will encourage organisations to take employee well-being seriously, but more effort needs to go into addressing the root causes of burnout.
LONG WORKING HOURS A PRIMARY CAUSE OF BURNOUT
Across occupations and industries, long working hours have been shown to be significantly correlated with burnout.
A recent study involving 1,560 full-time Taiwanese employees revealed that the longer the working hours, the stronger the relationship between long working hours and burnout.
In China, the gruelling “996” work schedule that stretches from 9am to 9pm six days a week has become the norm in tech companies.
While the “996” culture has been glorified by founder of Alibaba Jack Ma and JD.com founder Richard Liu, the situation facing China’s workforce has been less ideal.
There has been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese tech employees who reported burnout, fatigue and depression due to intense work stress and insomnia according to a 2018 government-led survey on mental health.
COMPLEXITIES AROUND REDUCING WORKING HOURS
It is easy to recommend organisations to reduce working hours to alleviate burnout. However, the issue is far more complex.
Despite years of labour reform in Japan, karoshi (death from overwork) remains a prevalent issue. A 2016 Japanese government white paper on karoshi revealed that 22.7 percent of the over 1,700 companies surveyed had employees who clocked in more than 80 hours of overtime each month.
One reason for Japan’s, and by and large, Asia’s overtime culture is the unspoken norm that workers should not leave the office before their managers.
Apart from the fact that there is generally high respect for authority in Asia, some managers also confuse long hours with work performance. Consequently, employees may feel the need to put in long hours to show diligence and avoid being laid off, or engage in unfulfilling work for facetime.
Sometimes, this toxic overtime culture is perpetuated by managers who do not like to knock off before their employees. This results in a self-fulfilling cycle of presenteeism, causing employees to experience physical and emotional exhaustion, and over time, burnout.
OTHER WORK-RELATED CAUSES OF BURNOUT
Another leading cause for burnout is employees’ lack of control over their job responsibilities and work–life boundaries.
In hierarchical organisations, employees tend to have little influence over their work environment and decision-making. This leads to job stress and strain as employees are not able to take steps to improve their job experiences and well-being.
Managers may also send work demands through e-mails and text messages after work hours, and employees feel obliged to respond. The blurring of work–life boundaries brought upon by technology-enabled working has meant that work now extends beyond office hours, often intruding on employees’ time with family and friends.
As employees become absorbed in their work, they may start feeling disconnected from others and themselves, leading to emotional numbness and depersonalisation.
In Singapore, Institute of Mental Health Sara-Ann Lee describes poor organisational culture, unrealistic expectations of workers’ productivity, role ambiguity and lack of recognition as chief reasons driving the vicious cycle of burnout in Singapore where two in three workers report above-average to high levels of stress.
READ: Sarah-Ann Lee's commentary: Always tired and worried about under-performing — when extreme meritocracy drives burnout
Technological disruption that has given rise to the “gig economy” is another source of burnout.
Gig workers often clock in long hours each day to compensate for their low, unstable income. The isolation and daily work stress faced by this group of workers have led many to experience burnout and depression.
NON-WORK-RELATED CAUSES OF BURNOUT
Burnout may also be experienced by individuals with many life demands, such as employees who have to juggle work and full-time studies, or caregiving responsibilities for dependants who are young, frail or disabled.
Individuals with caregiving responsibilities are most susceptible because they face additional stressors such as high healthcare costs, daily stress and anxiety, and social withdrawal.
Moreover, caregiving is often unrewarding, labourious and emotionally draining, all of which further contribute to burnout.
Burnout can also be triggered by personality traits such as low core self-evaluation and perfectionism.
READ: Exhaustion, withdrawal and low performance, why diagnosing burnout is an urgent task, a commentary
People with low core self-evaluation are susceptible to burnout as they tend to view problems as threatening or overwhelming, rather than challenges to overcome. On the other hand, perfectionists set high performance standards which they fail to meet, thus diminishing their self-beliefs.
WHAT CAN ORGANISATIONS DO?
Given the variety of causes of burnout, companies need a range of approaches to prevent and ameliorate the situation, through first identifying unique stressors.
For example, if an employee is feeling stressed due to his or her caregiving responsibilities, facilitating better co-worker and supervisor relationships, and putting in place various support mechanisms can help.
Employers can afford to invest in a human-resource centred performance management system that considers employees’ unique life circumstances (e.g., a working mother or an employee with a chronically ill spouse) to reduce the sense of isolation and ineffectiveness when these employees work from home or take time off to care for their loved ones.
Rather than institutionalising burnout leave or limiting the number of hours worked, employers should focus on fostering a positive work environment where employees are given autonomy to define their job scopes, and flexible work arrangements where employees can balance their work and life responsibilities.
WHAT CAN EMPLOYEES DO?
Much as employees can try to manage the tempo of work, it’s also up to each of us to manage a healthy work–life balance. Do not be absorbed by work 24/7. Switch off the work e-mail on your mobile phone after office hours, and protect family and private time.
Modern technology makes it easier to work in multiple teams, but this accelerates demands and expectations. As a general rule of thumb, avoid multi-tasking. Instead, focus on one task at a time to make work more manageable and enjoyable.
Detect burnout symptoms as early as possible. Seek medical advice if you start to have trouble sleeping and have heart palpitations at work.
Talk to your manager about your health concerns and identify a better work arrangement for you. You can work better only if you are healthy.
If employees do experience burnout, it is important for them to take control of their lives and create more autonomy for themselves. This is not easy as an employee who brings up how overwhelming their workload has become is sometimes seen as not being a team player.
If managers are unwilling to be flexible, perhaps it is time to look for a job in another organisation that is less demanding.
Carys Chan is Lecturer/Assistant Professor in Management at RMIT University. Shea Fan is Lecturer/Assistant Professor in International Business at RMIT University.