• 04 499 5534
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Covid-19: Avoid the 'invisible burnout' that can occur working from home

Empty office space in Wellington buildings suggests that many workers are still working from home, and to a lesser extent that some will have lost their jobs.

Burnout at homeWhat are the additional health risks that workers face when they work at home and what additional steps should employers take to protect them?

While the situation is more extreme in the United States some of the problems still exist here. The emergence of “invisible burnout” has been mentioned. One problem can be the border between work and home life being blurred when working from home.

Thomas Bishop of Iowa told the Wall Street Journal about the effect of balancing work at home with caring for his elderly father. He said people often overestimate how much they can do. Even if you are good at time management, he says, it is important to balance your life by scheduling in relaxation time.

Balancing childcare responsibilities with work is another obvious difficulty. A director at Eventbrite says work burnout is insidious it is not just like a red light that comes on. It is something that very slowly starts to happen and can catch people by surprise.

On the positive side there are suggestions on what people can do. The Eventbrite director now leads sessions for employees on how to recognise burnout.

He gives them a forum to voice their feelings and talks to them about getting advice from mental health specialists.

The chief executive at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise in the US encourages managers to call staff to check on their well-being. “You have got to make an effort – do not assume an email is enough because it is not personable”.

Making sure your staff are being heard and providing them with backup if needed is important. Other examples include people being able to work reduced hours with little change in pay and conditions. Providing workers with access to child-care facilities is another option. Having a way of stopping people from being glued to their laptops may be important as well.

Monitoring peoples’ work, especially where they are working after hours, is something that managers could do. Expanding access to counselling and mental health services should be considered. Perhaps even digital counselling apps might be helpful.

Employers should also take an interest in the workstations and work arrangements that their workers have when they work from home.

Long before Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand the Australian retail chain Bras N Things opened seven stores in this country. A country manager was appointed. She entered the role with great optimism but this faded quickly with her concern with her workload. She routinely worked more than 60 hours a week and eventually her doctor diagnosed her with "burnout". He advised her to take sick leave which he did.

The manager informed her employer in writing of her detailed concerns about workload and her belief that it was the cause of her health problems. She returned to work part-time but found her workload remained excessive. She now also claimed she was being bullied by her managers.

Returning to work made matters worse and Bras N Things did not take all reasonable steps to ensure she did not suffer further harm. Eventually she resigned after 16 months.

The doctor took the view she was suffering from a relapse of burnout and depression. As often happens, Bras N Things said the workload was not excessive and that she received adequate support.

Bras N Things said it had concerns about the performance of the New Zealand operation and the way the manager had been managing it. It said these matters were brought to her attention in a proper manner and there was no bullying or unreasonable treatment.

The manager raised a personal grievance and the case went to a hearing. She had two claims that are relevant for our purposes. The first claim was for the harm to her health before she took the initial period of sick leave and wrote to the company drawing the problems to its attention.

She claimed that the company failed to provide a safe system of work. Her second claim was that she was constructively dismissed.

Although overwork caused the initial breakdown in the manager’s health, it was not reasonably foreseeable that this would occur to management and she received no remedy for that.

The position changed completely once she wrote the letter notifying management of the problems she was suffering from. Her ill-health following her return to work and her resignation were brought about by the unreasonable demands on her and the resignation was foreseeable. There was a constructive dismissal. She received $20,000 compensation and some minimal lost earnings.

The lesson of that case is how important it is for employees to notify their employers in writing of any workload stress or burnout problems that their employment is causing, whether they work at home or in the office. Keep the employer informed in detail regularly and in writing. That is the golden rule.

Recent media coverage of suicides amongst senior doctors due, at least in part, to burnout provides a further sobering reminder of how important it is to address burnout early.

We all know how lucky we are in New Zealand to be relatively Covid-free.

Overseas examples arise from a much bleaker health environment. But despite that there have been significant changes in the way people work in New Zealand. It is extremely important that both employers and employees communicate regularly with each other with a view to minimising damage to workers’ health.

Regular, preferably in-person, meetings and discussions with employees is the best way of ensuring staff feel valued and of ensuring risks to their health are kept to a minimum. We have a very different working environment that we are all learning to live with.