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Employers need to be wary of the dangers of employee burnout

I wrote in December last year about the dangers of burnout and statistics that were coming out of the United States. A recently released Auckland University of Technology study of 1000 people following last year’s alert level 4 Covid-19 lockdown has confirmed the problem is also widespread in New Zealand.

Workplace burnoutThe study found 11 per cent of the workers were suffering from burnout. The figure goes to 31 per cent if you include workers who are dangerously close to burnout.

Professor Jarrod Haar told the media that those in the study with burnout were ending up with high job anxiety, high depression, and they would not be sleeping well. He added they might have physical pain and would not be performing on the job.

Haar gave what he called the four key indicators for burnout. They were emotional exhaustion, feelings of indifference to your job, lack of emotional control and having trouble staying focused.

Haar said the people the survey identified as at risk were serious cases. There were lots of GP visits and, of course, medication. The social and financial costs would be enormous.

Those worst affected were those aged under 29 (200 per cent more likely to be burnt out), managers who volunteer to cover staff (219 per cent more likely to be burnt out), essential workers and workers in big firms (about 150 per cent more likely to be burnt out).

The results were different with companies that prioritised caring for employees than those that did not. The worst group of firms were more than three times as likely to have burnt out workers than the best group of firms.

If you went to bed tired and exhausted that might not be such a problem but if you woke up like that then it was a red flag, Haar said.

He emphasised the importance of participation and consultation in occupational health, and said everyone should be involved – management, employees, unions health and safety representatives.

Burnout is not a new problem in New Zealand, although these new statistics are alarming. In 2002, the Court of Appeal delivered a judgment in a leading case on the breakdown of health through stress.

Christopher Gilbert retired on medical grounds from his employment as a probation officer in 1996 at the age of 50. Apart from four years, he had been a probation officer since 1971. He retired because of heart problems and depression. Two years later he was diagnosed as being 90 per cent disabled.

Gilbert brought proceedings in the Employment Court. His employer had various statutory obligations including to be a good employer; to provide good and safe working conditions; and to take reasonable precautions for the health and safety of workers.

Later, with changing legislation, there was an obligation to put in place effective methods for identifying hazards to employees. The employer was required to take all practicable steps to eliminate, isolate or minimise significant hazards.

Gilbert also claimed that implied terms in the contract relating to trust and confidence being a good and considerate employer had been breached. The Employment Court found the Department of Corrections had breached several obligations and that Gilbert’s claim should succeed.

In the Employment Court the judge held that Gilbert was exposed to stress with consequential harm arising out of his workload, failures of management, and office and resource deficiencies. His injury arose not just from stress necessarily inherent in his work as a probation officer, but from avoidable additional pressures of workload office dysfunction and inadequate resources.

Gilbert had argued that there was chronic understaffing in the Probation Service office he worked in, among other things. This understaffing had affected his health very badly. The department’s breach of its contractual duties had caused Gilbert’s health to be damaged and that led to his resignation on medical grounds. He could not resume his employment. All of this was foreseeable.

The Court of Appeal, through Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, trimmed back some of the damages awarded in the Employment Court but even allowing for that, the awards to Gilbert were extremely high. Deservedly so.

Gilbert still ended up with an award of damages for future lost income. He was awarded lost remuneration and $75,000 general damages for humiliation, anxiety and distress. A damages award for loss of career prospects of $50,000 and exemplary damages of $50,000 were both reversed in the Court of Appeal.

The obligations on employers to protect their workers’ health and safety have only increased since the time of the Gilbert case. Responsibility rests not only with the employer but also with the directors of the employer company. The worker has obligations too.

Employer obligations do not disappear because people are working from home. The employer’s obligations remain to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its workers.

The AUT study provides a clear reminder that employers need to be wary of the risk of burnout among their staff, particularly given the increased pressure many people have been under since the emergence of Covid-19.

It is important to monitor the health of employees to see that they do not end up with their health damaged or destroyed in the way that Gilbert’s was.

Those employers that take a caring approach with their staff are likely to have a healthier and more effective team.