Going back to the office? Research suggests burnout is set to boom

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Statistics show going back to the office will increase worker burnout.

With lockdown finally lifted across Australia, employers need to be alert to a different health crisis that is likely to spike as workers drift back into the office: burnout. 

More than 50% of workers reported feeling burnt out in the last year — up by 10% during the last 18 months in and out of lockdown — and these figures are set to spike again as workers drift back into the office. For many, it has been the straw to break the camel’s back, working longer hours and the inability to unplug from work key factors contributing to pandemic burnout.

A June survey by McKinsey found that one-third of workers said returning to the office had negatively affected their mental health, while half of those yet to return anticipated it would affect them negatively.

And let’s not forget the pandemic came on the back of an extended period of great uncertainty and upheaval and, in many instances, trauma following drought, bushfire and floods. Throw in economic downturn and royal commissions and the constant battering has depleted what psychologists refer to as our ‘surge capacity’, which is a set of mental and physical adaptive systems that give us the extra energy we need to survive short periods of high stress. It is not designed for extended periods without respite or recovery.

During lockdown, many Sydney and Melbourne workers had the opportunity to reconsider how they want to work and live, and are now fitting work into life rather than the other way around. Most don’t want to go back to the way it was.

So what’s the answer? Workplaces need to take responsibility for the environment they create and consider a more flexible approach where possible. And individuals need to inoculate themselves against burnout by focusing on the following five factors.

1. Purpose alignment

Alignment of purpose with personal values has strong links to improving satisfaction with life. Not only does a sense of purpose and meaning in our work enhance our wellbeing and help us to bounce back faster, it is often the difference between the energised 80 hour-a-week workers and the depleted 40 hour-a-week ones.

2. Active recovery

While yoga, diaphragmatic breathing and a walk alone won’t prevent burnout, physical relaxation and switching off psychologically are key to sustaining energy levels, reducing fatigue, nurturing creativity, and enhancing emotional intelligence. Note: having a glass of wine/beer every night after work and watching TV is not active recovery as the body stays in sympathetic nervous system and the brain is in beta.

3. Restorative sleep

Quality restorative sleep is vital to recovery, hormone balance, brain function and memory. Consistent quality sleep creates a buffer against ongoing daily life stressors and risk of burnout. This means switching off devices 30 minutes before bed; aiming for 7-8 hours a night; keeping your bedroom dark and cool and consistent sleep and wake times.

4. Physiological capacity

Optimal physiological capacity refers to the body’s ability to have reserves and adapt in a range of situations, especially in response to challenging tasks or stressful times. Physical activity enhances cognitive flexibility, boosts energy levels, reduces chronic lethargy, boosts mood, increases social cohesion and can reduce symptoms of mild depression — all buffers against future burnout.

5. Social connectedness

Flourishing relationships and connection with community are fundamental to pleasure, meaning and fulfilment in life. We are social beings who need both support and connection. Quality time with those we love and those we respect provides a buffer from work stresses, re-energise you and gives you the support and stability to navigate tricky patches.

With change comes growth and adaptation. While we are all aware of some of the challenges COVID-19 has thrown our way, there are major opportunities to cement new ways of working and in many instances, new ways of living more connected and meaningful lives as we transition to a ‘new norm’. Rather than burning out, focus on how you can refresh, renew and reset.

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