Addressing Employee Burnout | Interview With Will Mersh at Spill

| Hannah Skingle

Category: Social issues

Spill is a Beauhurst-tracked startup which is helping businesses to address mental health amongst their employees. This is done through an app that allows users to communicate with counsellors at any time and carry out mindfulness exercises.

Spill’s Head of Brand, Will Mersh, recently held an online lecture for all Beauhurst employees to learn more about workplace stress, anxiety and burnout, the best ways to spot it and some of the key ways you can prevent and treat it. 

Headshot of Will Mersh from Mental health startup Spill

We all learnt so much from the talk, that we wanted to share some of the key points. So we sat down with Will to discuss the questions that can help you address burnout within your own workplace. 

Hi Will! Thanks for taking the time to speak to us and teach us a thing or two about the way our brains work. 

Everyone’s becoming more familiar with the term ‘burnout’, so can you start by explaining what it is, and how it’s different to stress and anxiety?

Of course! Burnout is best thought of as a special kind of work-related depression. It’s not a diagnosable mental health or medical condition, so you can’t be diagnosed with burnout by a doctor like you can with generalised anxiety disorder. 

The World Health Organisation classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”, meaning it’s a set of symptoms that tend to occur together, and can only be caused by work: you can’t burn out from a difficult relationship or from life stressors (although these can definitely compound with burnout to make you feel even worse).

Obviously we’ve all had to adapt the way we work in 2020. How have you seen trends in burnout change in the context of COVID-19 and working from home?

Since March 2020, the proportion of messages on Spill mentioning burnout has nearly tripled. Burnout is about more than just the objective amount of workload and stress; as the World Health Organisation puts it, it’s about “work-related stress that has not been successfully managed“. 

It’s the last part of that line which is key: the objective amount of work we’re doing hasn’t drastically changed (in fact, most of us in the Western world are working dramatically fewer hours than people did a century ago, when the weekly average was 65-70 hours, according to Our World in Data). So it appears to be our psychological relationship with work that has changed in the context of COVID: we aren’t able to delineate between work and play as clearly, we find it difficult to switch off, and the lack of variance and excitement in other parts of life makes our days feel more similar to each other — all of which increase our propensity to experience burnout. 

So what are the symptoms of burnout and how can you spot them?

Burnout is characterised by three symptoms occurring together: exhaustion, negativity and ineffectiveness.

Exhaustion is when you feel tired, unfocused and lacking in energy a lot of the time. Other people might notice that you seem quieter, slower, or more withdrawn.

Negativity  is when you feel downbeat, cynical and hopeless about your job and work prospects. Other people might notice that you’re quick to see the worst in things or seem more self-critical than usual. 

Ineffectiveness is when you feel like you’re not getting much work done, or the quality of your work is lower than usual, even though you’re trying as best you can. Other people might notice that you’re dropping the ball at work more than usual, you’re missing things you usually wouldn’t, or the quality and speed of your work has dropped dramatically.

If you or someone you work with might be experiencing burnout, you can assess the severity using our burnout symptoms test, which only takes a minute.

So it really is something that every employer should be trying to avoid, both for personal mental health and for productivity. What mechanisms should be put in place to reduce the likelihood of burnout?

The key to preventing burnout is to make the root psychological causes highly unlikely to happen. This is best done by putting in place new habits and processes.

Make targets feel achievable by breaking them down into smaller chunks, building holiday time into execution plans, blocking out your diary during periods of high workload, and even putting on an out-of-office if you need to.

Make success goalposts clearer with shared objectives and key results, weekly plans, progress and problems, and regular team retrospectives.

Gain a greater sense of autonomy by making a ‘not to-do list’ as well as a to-do list each week, justifying the reasoning why you’re deciding to work on something (our brains love a strong rationale for feeling reassured), and revisiting short-term goals and targets in light of new information.

Make work feel more open and supportive by having non-performance one-to-ones (about how you’re doing more generally), try making individual ‘user manuals’ so you can better understand other people’s quirks and triggers, and suggest reverse mentoring (which pairs up senior and junior people for informal coffees, where the junior person decides the topic and questions).

How can employers deal with burnout among their staff, and help them to recover?  

The key to treating burnout is to catch it as early as possible. Listen and look out carefully for early signs of the three symptoms (fatigue, negativity and ineffectiveness). This doesn’t mean that an individual is definitely experiencing burnout, but it signals that it’s worth checking in with them:

  • Is someone quicker to shoot down other people’s ideas than usual?
  • Are you hearing them say unusually pessimistic things like “There’s no way I’ll be able to get that done on time” or “I’m not the right person to be on this project”?
  • Are they dropping balls on the job that they usually wouldn’t? 
  • Are they having substantially less ideas or being slower to respond?
  • Do they seem to find small tasks far more difficult?

If someone is experiencing burnout, there is no substitute for time off—at least a week. 

Overcoming the psychological barriers to taking time off is key here, as people can worry that they’ll be seen as lazy, will miss out on progress at work, and will cause higher workload and stress for others. The best way around this is to sit down with the employee and make a clear plan for how and where their work will be redistributed, as well as how they will be able to pick it up again easily once they return.

Lastly, how is Spill helping clients to ensure they have a happy and healthy workforce?

Talking to a therapist can help prevent burnout, as it’s about that psychological relationship with work. Spill’s Slack app lets employees book video sessions with qualified therapists the next day in just three clicks, all 100% anonymously. On top of that, we’re also hosting free talks on positive mental health, and beating anxiety and burnout, as well as hosting online manager training sessions to help spot and address poor mental health at work. We’ve distilled some of our learnings into a long-form guide to preventing burnout.

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