Nearly two thirds of Aussie workers are experiencing high levels of burnout, with leaders feeling the strain even more, according to new research. How can HR ensure a psychologically safe workplace for employees at all levels?
Almost two thirds of Australian workers (63.6 per cent) are feeling burned out, and nearly nine in 10 say they have been feeling that way for an extended period of time, according to a new report from the Wellbeing Lab.
“The fact that [burnout] is still sitting at that rate tells us that this is more than just the global pandemic and lockdowns. This new normal of work [and it’s] really challenging for many of us. There’s cumulative exhaustion, which I think most of us can relate to,” says Dr Michelle McQuaid, Founder of the Wellbeing Lab.
These high levels of burnout are particularly concerning in light of employers’ new legal responsibilities around psychosocial hazards.
“So much of the [workplace] psychosocial safety responsibility is landing on the shoulders of leaders right now. So, how do we make sure that asking leaders to take on another [responsibility] is not the straw that breaks the camel’s back?” – Dr Michelle McQuaid, Founder of the Wellbeing Lab
As part of a new Code of Practice that took effect in April this year, employers now have stronger obligations to manage their employees’ psychosocial safety at work. The Code mandates a systematic approach to managing ‘psychosocial hazards’, defined as aspects of work design, work itself and interactions between employees which can impact their mental health and emotional wellbeing (such as bullying or exclusionary behaviours).
Interestingly, leaders reported experiencing higher levels of burnout than their teams. Nearly seven in 10 leaders (68.8 per cent) said they were feeling burnt out, compared with 58.4 per cent of their team members.
“It is worth noting that leaders in particular are really feeling it right now… I think it’s interesting because so much of the [workplace] psychosocial safety responsibility is landing on the shoulders of leaders right now. So how do we make sure that asking leaders to take on another [responsibility] is not the straw that breaks the camel’s back?”
The relationship between burnout and psychosocial safety
When researchers asked employees about the workplace hazards that caused them to feel burned out, the overarching theme in their responses was a sense of uncertainty about their role and high job demands.
“Burnout tends to be a reflection of an imbalance between the job demands being asked of us, and the job resources we have to execute those things,” says McQuaid.
“We often think of it like a seesaw – you might have a little bit of imbalance for a while. But, if that equation is too out of whack for too long, that tends to be what creates extra stress and puts us at risk of burnout.”
The report found that the top three causes of burnout were as follows:
1. Lack of role clarity
Of the respondents who reported feeling burned out, a staggering 95.3 per cent said a lack of clarity was the hazard most frequently causing them stress.
“‘Lack of role clarity’ is suggesting that many workers are not quite sure about their role and responsibilities or what’s expected of them, and that’s causing confusion and frustration and extra stress for people,” says McQuaid.
“So much has changed about our roles over the last few years post-pandemic. There’s a lot of uncertainty. So I think a really low-hanging piece of fruit to help reduce burnout right now in workplaces is making sure we have clarity – that we’re revisiting the responsibilities and expectations of people regularly.”
Read HRM’s article on the three types of burnout that employers need to be aware of.
2. Poor change management
With all the upheaval to our ways of working in recent times, it’s perhaps unsurprising that over three quarters (79 per cent) of respondents said their psychosocial safety was impacted by inadequate change management.
“[This] often creates a sense of anxiety and feelings of insecurity either in their role or in their job period,” says McQuaid.
“Part of that is the shift to hybrid work and how we’re all doing with that. But also, we just don’t tend to communicate well or execute with reasonable consistency when it comes to change management in our workplaces.”
Need help navigating workplace change? AHRI’s short course will arm you with the skills to understand change management at an individual, team and organisational level.
3. Inadequate reward and recognition
This was identified as a significant stressor for 75 per cent of respondents.
“This isn’t just about being paid enough. It tends to be more about not feeling valued or recognised for the work that they’re doing,” says McQuaid.
“More gratitude in our workplaces can go a hell of a long way. When we’re not feeling valued and recognised, it tends to leave us feeling demotivated, underappreciated or that we’re unimportant. And of course, we all just want to be respected and valued.”
Other causes of stress and burnout mentioned by respondents included a lack of support from supervisors, and the lack of boundaries and human interaction associated with remote work. Unrealistic job demands, which McQuaid’s team anticipated would be one of the most common drivers of burnout, came in at seventh on the list.
“It’s still at 64.2 per cent – they’re not saying it’s not a problem at all,” she says. “But, actually, there are more important things above it that workplaces can address without a whole lot of effort or money required to do them. But [we need] that awareness of what is causing burnout symptoms in our people.”
A top-down approach to psychosocial safety
As well as taking steps to tackle burnout head-on, McQuaid suggests taking a holistic approach that centres around psychosocial safety. Doing so will not only ensure that employers are compliant with their new obligations around managing psychosocial hazards, but will also help to prevent burnout arising in the first place.
“If we feel psychologically safe at work, we are more willing to speak up quickly if we are experiencing psychosocial risks,” she says.
“Let’s say we’ve got unachievable job demands. If I feel psychologically safe with my boss, I’m more likely to speak up and say, ‘I can’t get all that done this week. Can you help me prioritise?’ or ‘The last month has been really hard. We either need more people or we need to rebalance my workload and responsibilities.’
“When we don’t feel psychologically safe, we don’t have those conversations. We tend to sit on them and take on more and more of those unachievable job demands, for example, until we find ourselves burnt out.”
The Wellbeing Lab’s research has consistently found that when psychosocial safety in the workplace is high, every single one of the psychosocial stressors they assessed was reduced, including burnout.
While the importance of fostering psychosocial safety should be impressed upon leaders, McQuaid warns organisations against assuming that their leaders will be able to manage their new responsibilities without receiving support themselves.
“If we feel psychologically safe at work, we are more willing to speak up quickly if we are experiencing psychosocial risks.” – Dr Michelle McQuaid, Founder of the Wellbeing Lab
With leaders reporting significantly higher levels of stress than their people, it’s all the more important that employers’ strategies to manage these hazards start at the top.
“Leaders are highly contagious when it comes to mental health and wellbeing in workplaces,” says McQuaid.
“If leaders are less burnt out themselves, it’s less likely their team will be too, because leaders are more present and available to their team members and listening to them and finding better ways to support them as they go about their jobs. This is why starting with leaders is so important.”
The best way for leaders to learn how to have more psychologically safe conversations with their teams is to practice having them themselves, she says.
“Leaders right now need a level of support that we’ve never seen before in workplaces. And getting that through peer relationships that have mixed dynamics and diversity, is a really important way to support leaders. Help them practice building those skills, help give them some accountability around that and make sure they are being heard.”
McQuaid offers some examples of such initiatives, including ‘leadership coaching triads’, where three leaders across a business meet on a fortnightly or monthly basis to check in with one another.
“[We need to think about] what we are doing to equip our leaders to be more proactive, because, again, the best solution with psychosocial risks is to catch them early before they become bigger problems over time.
“Especially when our goal is to try to reduce the level of burnout and support the mental health and wellbeing of our people, which is why the [new] legislation and Codes have been introduced.”
Michelle McQuaid will speak alongside other HR leaders, researchers and experts at AHRI’s 2023 annual National Convention & Exhibition. Don’t miss your chance to build connections, hear from globally recognised thought leaders and lead impactful change. Register now.