Healthcare experts share practical tips to manage burnout
Burnout is a serious issue that impacts workers not only in Australia but around the world. It can have far-reaching impacts on productivity, well-being and employee turnover.
A recent study showed that Australian workers reported the highest burnout rates in the world. An alarming 61% of Australian workers reported experiencing burnout, compared to the global average of 48%. This trend has seen burnout rates increase by 5% from 2021 to 2022, leading to burnout being attributed to 40% of employee resignations. The economic impact of this can be significant, with burnout and stress-related absenteeism costing the Australian economy an estimated $14 billion annually.
Most importantly, unmanaged burnout can put workers at a higher risk of developing mental health problems. It can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and significant health risks for employees.
We recently sat down with five experts from the healthcare industry to discuss burnout – including how it can manifest and strategies that both individuals and employers can take to manage and safeguard against burnout.
What signs and symptoms may point to burnout?
Spotting the signs and symptoms of burnout is crucial in providing timely support. Laura Hainsworth, a psychiatric nurse consultant at the Royal Children’s Hospital of Melbourne, says change in someone’s personality or in their demeanor is generally the first sign.
Signs that someone may be struggling with burnout include:
- Decreased satisfaction or sense of accomplishment
- Feeling isolated or disengaged from work
- Struggling to enjoy activities that are normally enjoyable
- Becoming upset or tearful at work
- Fatigue, lack of energy, exhaustion or feeling drained
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, intestinal issues or illness
- Making little errors or lapses in judgement, or not performing to their usual standard
- being late to work, taking longer breaks or work avoidance
- Increasingly negative or cynical outlook.
Some of the signs of burnout can overlap with common mental illnesses like anxiety, but it’s important to remember that it is not the role of the Mental Health First Aider™ to diagnose. If you think that anxiety or burnout may be present, an initial mental health first aid conversation can help support the individual to seek the help that they need.
What approaches can individuals take to manage burnout?
Kayelene Crossing, AOD Clinician at the Royal Doctor Flying Service, highlights the importance of self-care, noting that it is a personal process – and that what works for one person might not work for everybody.
“There are many ways to look at self-care – it’s physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual or even practical.
“We need to remember that self-care isn’t selfish. It’s essential for maintaining good physical and mental health. Taking time for yourself allows you to recharge, reduce stress, and cope better with life’s challenges.”
The Royal Doctor Flying Service hosts self-care days that aim to connect workers in remote regions with services or healthcare professionals that they don’t normally have access to – from hairdressers to massage therapists.
Set boundaries to support a healthy work-life balance
Setting boundaries can help individuals achieve a healthy work-life balance to better protect against burnout.
Laura suggests allocating “protected time” at work for essential tasks without interruption. It might just be setting aside half an hour to focus on your own tasks when you’re feeling overloaded.
She adds that it can help to separate work from your home life. This can start with not checking your work emails outside of work hours if you can help it, and can extend to setting up agreements to not speak about work with friends, family or colleagues in social settings.
Develop a “stop doing” list
For Shirley Jennings, Senior Psychiatric Nurse from Barwon Health, a proactive approach to preventing burnout is to manage a “stop doing” list in tandem with “to-do lists” – particularly once the latter becomes unmanageable.
“Stop doing” lists can extend beyond just workload management – they can be used to set healthy boundaries with yourself and your work.
“It might be about some of your own behaviours. Do you hang around at work more than you should? Do you keep tolerating things you shouldn’t?”
Continuing to check in on and negotiate priorities and goals can help ensure that they are manageable and prevent workload from building beyond capacity.
Take your annual leave
Taking regular leave and using it to recharge is vital to managing and preventing burnout.
Kayelene says her organisation encourages staff to use their leave to address burnout proactively. If they see leave building up over a few weeks, they ask staff to take some leave for their own well-being.
Similarly, staff who appear to be struggling are encouraged them to take a couple of days as annual leave to help them reset.
But it’s important not to rely on leave as a reactive measure. “Planning your leave means you have something to look forward to,” Laura notes.
Kayelene adds that speaking to a manager or a trusted person to establish support structures – such as reduced workload or reduced hours – can also be immensely helpful.
What approaches can employers take to manage burnout?
Celebrate wins and promote connection
Creating a positive team culture can significantly improve the individual employee experience. For Laura’s team at the Royal Children’s Hospital, it can be as simple as celebrating the small wins or expressing gratitude in open forums.
A whiteboard in their nursing office serves as a community noticeboard, sharing positive messages of gratitude from, and to, members of the team. This theme of gratitude extends into their 15-minute morning meetings.
“One of the agenda items is to share what you are thankful for.”
People often take this opportunity to openly thank other members of the team for their contribution.
“That really boosts people.”
Provide empathetic and effective leadership
For Shirley, a key driver in creating a culture that prevents burnout and supports well-being is effective leadership that focuses on engaging everyone in the team and demonstrating empathy.
These qualities can help ensure leaders have a capability around mental health literacy and are leading with compassion. Effective leaders can help to foster the emotional intelligence of a team as a whole.
“It is about bringing together the ideas of individual self-care and individual self-leadership as a team. Understanding how to listen to each other and support each other becomes part of the team culture.”
The Royal Doctor Flying Service encourages their people leaders to take a proactive approach to well-being. They run a monthly one-on-one “Connect” program for employees and managers to meet about non-work-related matters.
“It’s about supporting their regular and ongoing development and well-being,” Kayelene explains.
“It’s a safe space for employees and managers to discuss any issues or questions that the employee may have. It’s just about them and their well-being.”
Promote a healthy work-life balance
Laura says her organisation strongly believes in providing a healthy work-life balance.
“We support staff to roster what best fits their life, rather than asking them to fit their lives around the roster,” Laura explains.
She says that while some people like to work six days in a row and have a stretch of time off, others will work three days before needing a short break.
Although their focus is on rosters, any workplace or industry can use this approach to see where they can provide flexibility that allows for a healthier work-life balance.
Equip your workplace with Mental Health First Aiders
Rachel Pritchard, Mental Health and AOD Manager at Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network, says that Mental Health First Aid training has been pivotal in supporting employee well-being and reducing mental health stigma at the Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network.
Like they do physical first aiders, the organisation displays posters that feature their accredited Mental Health First Aiders – those trained within the organisation that staff can approach as a first point of call if they are experiencing burnout or mental health problems.
“Having a group of Mental Health First Aiders has allowed mental health and mental problems to become common language across the organisation, which helps to reduce stigma,” Rachel shares.
“Staff who have completed the training within my organisation have indicated that they now have the confidence and skills to have those hard conversations, which otherwise might be might have been intimidating to them prior.”
Create a safe environment for people to speak up if they are not okay
For Laura, the key message for both employers and individuals is simple: “It’s okay to not be okay – and it needs to be okay to talk about it”.
“We need to encourage discussions around mental health by creating an open, psychologically, psychologically safe culture. The more that we talk, the more the stigma reduces, and people can have those first aid conversations.