by Breda O'Malley December-06-2021 in Employment Law, COVID-19

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen a substantial rise in employees experiencing burnout across various sectors. Which is no surprise where 60% of Irish employees are feeling more stressed since the onset of the pandemic, according to a recent survey conducted by the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick. However, unfortunately, burnout has always been a commonplace feature in many of the queries we receive from both the employee and employer perspective.


What is burnout?

In 2019, the World Health Organisation included burn-out in the International Classification of Diseases, describing it as an “occupational phenomenon”. It is defined as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterised by feelings of exhaustion, negativism or cynicism related to one’s job or reduced professional efficacy.


How does burnout manifest itself?

Oftentimes, symptoms of burnout can be subtle in the beginning such as reduced productivity or forgetfulness. This can quickly morph into irritability with colleagues, missed deadlines, loss of motivation, decreased satisfaction, fatigue, an increasingly negative outlook on work and projects, lack of interest and in some serious cases, depression, and suicidal ideation. Commonly, you will find that burnt out employees are overwhelmed, floundering, and even developing physical symptoms from the level of stress that they are experiencing.


What can cause burnout?

Excessive workload, unrealistic targets and deadlines and bullying are the main causes of burnout in employees. In particular, bullying can result in emotional exhaustion in employees, where they are subjected to repeated, inappropriate and undermining behaviour in the workplace. Bullying is described in the Industrial Relations Act's Code of Practice on Bullying as “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another … at the place of work … which could be reasonably regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work”.


What can an employer do?

The Code of Practice places a strong emphasis on taking an informal approach to resolution of bullying in the workplace. The aim with informal resolution is to resolve matters in a dignified and pragmatic way, with as little conflict and stress for all concerned, as expeditiously as possible.

Once burn out is recognised, we recommend employers have an honest, frank, and open conversation with the employee concerning their struggles and stressors contributing to burnout. It is best to have the issues aired out and addressed in a non-adversarial and non-confrontational way. We have found that this approach leads to a more progressive conversation between employee and employer.

If matters cannot be resolved and the employee feels that they are still experiencing burnout, we recommend the employer engage with consultants such as conflict dynamic specialists who can work with the individual and explore, at a deeper level, the underlying cause of their burnout. Conflict dynamic specialists are also extremely beneficial in circumstances where there is a wider issue with the dynamics of a team, particularly if there are bullying allegations in the fold. 

Employers should also refer the employee to the company’s Employee Assistance Programme and offer counselling sessions or time off work to recover and heal. It is important that the employee feels supported and not isolated by their employer. Offering external supports are of course subject to affordability. However, while investing in consultants or offering external counselling may seem like an initial cost for the business, it is in fact a significant saving in the longer term.

In circumstances where burnout is missed, and the employer does not react proactively, this can lead to a drawn out and costly investigation which can increase insurance premiums and damage team morale.


Responsibility of the Employer

Employers have a duty of care to employees under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work, Act 2005 (the “Act”) and there are certain legal responsibilities that are placed on employers when it comes to employees’ health and wellbeing.

Under the Act, employers are required to provide a safe place of work, ensure safe systems of work, and secure an employee’s health and safety while at work. Given the rise in employees suffering from burnout, this condition is as serious a health and safety issue as any other and it is imperative that employers are proactive in their management of work-related stressors that could lead to burnout.  

It is also important for employers to recognise that any employee, regardless of seniority, can be struck with burnout and employees should not be assumed to remedy their own stress.

Employers should also be mindful of “rust out”, burnout's less burdensome counterpart that often occurs in employees who are uninspired and bored within their role. Rust out can also lead to productivity issues for the employer and depression for the employee. This is why it is equally as important for employers to remain vigilant and watch out for signs that an employee may be suffering from “rust out” such as, disinterest, apathy and boredom. 


Legal Risk

Failure to pro-actively manage burnout in the work force could result in exposure to employment law claims being brought by employees against the employer such as personal injury claims, industrial relations actions, claims under the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act, Employment Equality legislation and Protected Disclosures legislation.


What steps should employers take

 To avoid employee burnout and exposure to legal claims, employers can:-

  • Recognise the symptoms of burnout at an early stage
  • Carry out a workplace stress risk assessment
  • Ensure workload and responsibility is evenly distributed
  • Meet the employee for an informal, honest, and open conversation about their concerns
  • Open communication with employees to clarify their duties and responsibilities
  • Ensure adequate management and support
  • Offer counselling, guidance, and professional support
  • Provide employees with the necessary resources needed to fulfil their role and duties
  • Introduce a specific Stress Policy which sets out preventive and responsive measures

For further information on any of these issues, please contact Breda O'Malley  or any member of the Employment Law Team.

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