The pandemic caused a major upheaval in businesses and workplaces, including the continuation of remote and hybrid working arrangements. The phenomenon of the ‘great resignation’ has been felt by organisations also experiencing various financial impacts of the pandemic. The ‘Cost of Workplace Stress in Australia’ report by Medibank Private states that in 2007, workplace stress cost the Australian economy $14.81 billion per year. Additionally, presenteeism, or reduced efficiency at work and absenteeism, directly cost Australian businesses $10.11 billion.
This article outlines the obligations of managers to manage the risks the risk of burnout and practical ways to meet those obligations.
The ‘Managing the risks of psychosocial hazards at Work Code of Practice 2022’ (‘the Code’) published by Safe Work Australia became effective on 1 April 2023. Section 55B of the Work Health and Safety Regulation identifies a psychosocial hazard as:
‘a hazard that arises from, or relates to, the design or management of work, a work environment, plant at a workplace, or workplace interactions and behaviours and may cause psychological harm, whether or not the hazard may also cause physical harm.’
The Code outlines four main areas where psychosocial hazards may cause a stress response:
- Design or management of work;
- Work environment;
- Plant at a workplace; and
- Workplace interactions and behaviours.
Frequent, prolonged or severe exposure to these hazards can result physical or psychological harm.
Psychological harm from psychosocial hazards can present as depression, anxiety, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder or suicide. Burnout is not classified as a medical condition but is listed in the World Health Organization’s ‘International Classification of Diseases’ (‘ICD-11’) as a three-dimensional ‘occupational phenomenon’.
The three dimensions, or the main experiences of burnout are:
Exhaustion – feelings being of physically, mentally and or emotionally low or depleted.
Cynicism – ongoing negative feelings such as alienation, cynicism or feeling distanced.
Reduced efficiency – Presenteeism, reduced efficacy, efficiency, and output.
Burnout is traditionally associated with being overworked. Overload burnout is just one of the three types of burnout:
Overload burnout is when the worker is overscheduled, always busy and has little to no work-life balance. They have trouble detaching from work and setting boundaries separating work from other areas of their life. High job demands, rewarding completion of work with extra work, volunteering for extra work, and difficulty delegating or relinquishing control may also be observable.
Underchallenged burnout is where the person feels understimulated, unchallenged by their work, has no opportunities to grow or develop, has no opportunities to use or develop their skills which results in them feeling cynical, undervalued, and of low worth to their organisation.
Neglect burnout arises when a worker feels unsupported, unheard, or dismissed. They may feel that they have no autonomy or control over how their work is done or that they have no opportunity to meaningfully contribute. Micro-management may give rise to neglect burnout because the worker has no autonomy, space for creativity or innovation or choice in how they do their work.
The Code requires those who manage or with control of a business to manage the risk of psychosocial hazards using the familiar practice of:
- Identify hazards.
- Assess the risks.
- Control risks.
- Review measures of controlling risk to ensure that measures remain effective.
Managing burnout in practice
In addition to reading and implementing the Code, managers can proactively manage the risk of burnout in their teams by:
- Modelling healthy work/life balance by planning and taking leave, having interests outside of the work, taking breaks, working within the usual hours, and maintaining healthy boundaries such as not discussing work issues in the lunchroom, sending emails on the weekend or talking shop outside of hours, ensuring workers are taking breaks and discouraging work outside of usual hours when not required.
- Catch up with your team – the Code requires consultation with workers to identify psychosocial hazards. The discussions are an opportunity for managers to identify and assess factors specific to each worker, such as those at a higher risk of burnout due to personality characteristics. Discussions that meaningfully focus on a worker’s strengths, needs and struggles will provide managers with the necessary information to identify, control and assess risks.
- Provide opportunities – some individuals thrive on learning and development. Others are not as enthusiastic but enjoy opportunities to contribute to improvements or access to different opportunities. The opportunity for workers to provide input can also make workers feel valued where they are able to contribute to their work environment and facilitate a team environment.
Most people spend most of their waking hours at work, so it’s reasonable that we like to feel valued, appreciated, cared for and part of the workplace. Managing the risk of burnout is eliminating or reducing the risk of harm from frequent, prolonged and/or severe exposure to stressors.
Best practice is always prevention rather than cure and the benefits of implementing a proactive approach to managing the risks of psychosocial hazards are the potential to improve relationships, dynamics, productivity, staff retention, staff satisfaction and decrease financial and health impacts.
If you would like any assistance managing these risks within your workplace, please contact our employment law team in Cairns today.