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Employee Burnout - Whose fault?

Do employees let themselves become burnt out, or do employers burn them out?

Numerous studies show high workload to be the single most significant cause of workplace stress. But whose responsibility is it to manage stress, the employees or the employers?


The common perception seems to be that burnout arises as a result of employees not being able to cope. This is why mindfulness and resilience training are proving so popular. Employers seem to be saying: “We know our employees are struggling, so we’ll give them some mental health personal protective equipment (PPE)”.


In physical health and safety terms, PPE is the least preferred and last control measure employers should adopt. So, why is it so often the first thing employers turn to when it comes to mental health?


Many employers believe it’s the employee’s responsibility to make themselves more ‘hardy’. There are solid grounds for this belief. Section 7. of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 places a legal duty upon employees to look after their own health.


However, in addition to employee obligations, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to, amongst other things, undertake risk assessments, including mental health risk assessments.


Mental health risk assessments must be undertaken by a competent person, they must be suitable and sufficient, they must include the use of reasonable foresight and they must lead to the introduction of control measures that are reasonably practicable. And, of course, like all risk assessments, they should be undertaken before work commences.


Thinking about the use of reasonable foresight, it could be argued employers know or ought to know about various factors that can cause stress and burnout. Employers control working hours and how workload (demand) is managed by the workforce (capacity), so they know the workload of each person. Employers use resource planning methods, so know how reasonable targets are, such as those related to productivity and performance. Employers control rest periods, holidays and training, which relate to respite and the skills necessary to do the job. Employers also control role design, supervision and change management, which relate to control over work and management style. Given the need for employers to use reasonable foresight, and given the above management and operational knowledge employers possess, employers usually have knowledge of most role-related factors, so are likely to know when employees may be experiencing stress.


Exploring further what employers know or ought to know, employers also have knowledge of undue stress if individual employees or groups of employees raise concerns over workload (whether in private or publicly), and where the employer has measured workplace mental health and found workload to be a cause of stress.


Risk assessments, awareness of role-related factors and information provided by employees may provide employers with knowledge that employees are suffering undue stress. If employers have knowledge of undue stress, they have a legal duty to act upon that knowledge. If undue stress was reasonably foreseeable and if employers can be considered to have knowledge of it, employers may be found negligent if they fail to act on that knowledge.


Addressing undue workplace stress is likely to have two components:


· Addressing root causes

· Increasing the employee’s ability to cope


As with physical health and safety, the onus is first on the employer to take action to eliminate or reduce the causes of stress, BEFORE work commences and BEFORE the employee should be expected to take action.


So, in answer to the question, ‘do employees allow themselves to become burnt out or do employers burn them out?’, the answer has to be that employers let employees burn out.


If employees experience burnout, the employer failed to adequately foresee and/or address the causes of mental harm. If the employers say they didn’t have knowledge the employee was suffering from undue stress, the employer failed to create an open culture in which employees can speak out about their mental health before it’s too late.


Employers have a legal duty to employ a competent person, to use foresight, to undertake suitable and sufficient mental health risk assessments, and to do what is reasonably practicable to prevent mental harm, including stress that can lead to burnout. Employers should do all this before work commences, so before employees have had the chance to experience burnout. Only AFTER the employer has discharged these obligations should the employer look to provide the employee with mental health PPE, in the form of mindfulness, resilience and other forms of training.


So, if you’re an employer wondering about mental health and stress, don’t wait for your employees to experience mental harm and burnout. Take a proactive and preventative approach by eliminating and reducing the causes of workplace stress, along with any other factors that can cause or exacerbate mental health issues.

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