It’s all around us. What do we do about staff burnout?

It’s all around us. What do we do about staff burnout?

“At 32, my burnout hit me hard” is an article in today’s The Sunday Times that caught my eye. Former publisher and now fiction writer Abigail Bergstrom is writing about burnout and how when it happened to her the physical symptoms manifested so visibly and awkwardly in an uncontrollable nervous reflex that it alarmed work colleagues.  And then one day, Abigail suddenly found she couldn’t get out of bed.

Why we all need to be worried about staff burnout

Happily, Abigail did recover over time, though not before making some big lifestyle changes. But it saddens me to say that as I read through her story, it sounded familiar.  As I am sure it did to many readers.

We may be near the end of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, but it has taken a mighty toll on the wellbeing of workers everywhere. We hear so much about the pressure on NHS staff and care home workers, but of course it’s happening in charities too.  Time and again I am hearing from senior managers in the voluntary sector that they and their staff simply cannot go on under their relentless workload.

Recently, one CEO shared with me a whole catalogue of debilitating physical problems she has been experiencing since last summer. Several times the fingers on one hand have literally seized up whilst she’s been at her computer, and she’s been forced to take a few days out.  Like Abigail, mental burnout is showing itself through physical symptoms.

Another senior manager was describing to me how during a meeting with the board of trustees, she had felt undermined by the Chair. Suddenly on our video call, she broke down in tears.  Not because what had happened was so terrible; rather, she is so worn out physically and emotionally that she has lost the ability to keep this kind of everyday office politics in perspective. She too is suffering burnout.

The sense of urgency that people felt about excessive hours and work stress in 2020 seems to have been replaced by a weariness and even helplessness.  We should all be worried.

Whatever the cause, job burnout can and will affect your physical and mental health. So please, if it’s affecting you, try to think what you can do about it.  And if it’s happening to a work colleague, don’t ignore it.

Job burnout symptoms

  • Finding yourself constantly critical about how things are at work
  • Feeling a sense of dread at the start of each day, and having trouble getting started
  • Becoming irritable and impatient with other members of your team, customers or clients
  • Lacking the energy to be consistently productive
  • Becoming easily distracted when you need to concentrate
  • Feeling disillusioned and unhappy about your job
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or simply not to think about how you’re feeling
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Unexplained headaches, stomach cramps, or other physical ailments

Consequences of job burnout

Ignored or unaddressed, job burnout can have significant consequences on your mental and physical wellbeing, including:

  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sadness, anger or irritability
  • Food, alcohol or drug misuse
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Vulnerability to illness.

If it’s you that is experiencing job burnout

Try to take action. To get started:

  • Get some sleep. Yes, I know. Easier said than done. But if you are having trouble sleeping, at least get into a routine of not working late and going to bed at a reasonable time. And replace screen time for the last hour or so with something more relaxing like a bath and a good novel.
  • Consider your options. Discuss specific concerns with your manager. Work out together what needs to be prioritised and what can wait.
  • Seek support. If you have access to help within your organisation, say through an HR department, then use it. If not, reach out to a close colleague, friends or family.
  • Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of focusing on your breathing and being intensely aware of what you’re feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgement. It takes practice but many people find it helpful. Good alternatives are any kind of meditation or yoga.
  • Get some exercise. Our parents and grandparents were right. Fresh air and a walk each day can be wonderfully restorative. Even if you find yourself still brooding about work, you’re more likely to get a sense of perspective away from your desk.

If it’s a member of your team who is experiencing job burnout

Here’s what you can do to help.

  • Actively listen.  It will have taken a lot of courage for your staff member to speak up. Make sure you offer a private space to talk and allow plenty of time for a discussion.
  • Don’t say everyone is under a lot of pressure. Not helpful. They know that. People respond to stress differently, and from my experience the people most susceptible to burnout are the ones who care most about doing a great job. They may be perfectionists too. Do you really want to risk losing them?
  • Take it seriously. Saying the right thing and doing nothing is not acceptable.
  • Do something. If your staff member is feeling very emotional, delay action until a second meeting, which should follow not more than a day later. Then work out a plan that they are comfortable with.  They  may need time off sick. It may be sufficient to re-prioritise work.  Accept that one of the consequences of burnout is that the person is likely to be less productive for a while.
  • Keep the support going for as long as necessary. There is no quick fix to burnout. It’s a serious issue. Some managers get defensive in the face of a team member suffering stress from workload. Put that aside and instead focus on the future and what’s going to help the individual get well again.
I would love to have your feedback on this article and hear any stories you have about working with a board of trustees. Write to me at and let’s continue this conversation. About the Author – My name is Jenny Hopkins and The Boiling Frog is my blog for and about the charity sector. After more than ten years as a CEO, I now work as a freelance consultant, specialising in helping small and medium-sized charities adapt to our changing world.  I have one goal, and that is to help you succeed. Get in touch and let’s discuss how we can make that happen.

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