Burnout, self-advocacy and more

SafetyAtWorkBlog’s initial approach to Justine Alter, Psychologist and co-director of Transitioning Well. on the prevention of Burnout illicited the following response. It deserved further exploration so Alter was sent a further set of questions leading to useful answers.

“Prevention strategies are considered to be the most effective approach for addressing workplace burnout, and there are a number of things that workers can do to minimise the risk:   

– Recognise the importance of a work-life balance ensuring that you get some recovery time
– Prioritise your time. Identify what is important, what can wait, and what can be delegated to others
– Self-advocacy. This can be difficult, however thinking about the importance of your mental and emotional health may help you advocate better for yourself
– Lead by example: utilise any flexible leave policies and opportunities that your company may provide
– Remain aware of resources that are available through your workplace – EAP, counselling, etc.  Consider making these resources available if they aren’t already.”

The World Health Organisation describes burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” but warns it is “not classified as a medical condition”.  Why should Australian employers give attention to a potential hazard that is not a medical condition?

The cost of burnout to organisations is immense. Whilst affecting productivity and absenteeism amongst many, also, if not treated, it can lead to many symptoms which could be seen as a medical condition. 

Many of the prevention strategies relate to what workers can do to minimise the risk. What structural and organisational changes do you recommend to prevent psychological harm?

Frontline management can have significant influence over the factors that impact burnout.  For this reason, individuals in management or support positions should become aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout, as well as what they can do to prevent or respond to burnout.  This may require  training, or regular check ins around wellbeing and ensuring that teams are well supported.  A common issue seems to be under-resourcing and many people are working longer hours than ever before.  It’s essential that organisations stop and assess their own health in the organisation around culture and work hours. 

Other practical prevention strategies include:

– Improve communication 
– Clear expectations 
– Recognise and acknowledge work 
– Connect to purpose – Find out what motivates your employees 
– Know your people – pick up signs early Learn how to recognise signs of burnout early – education/ awareness
– Lead by example – culture of an organisation – e.g., flexibility / lunch breaks etc – not the walk of shame etc
– Adequate resources 

One of your recommendations is for workers to prioritise their time.  How do you recommend workers achieve this when they may be in precarious employment or in a company or industry sector which expects unpaid overtime and excessive work hours?

Time management can be done in many ways, including knowing the difference between what is urgent and what is important.  We can only work within the confines we all have including caring responsibilities and needing flexibility.  Getting straight with your non-negotiables around this is essential and being able to communicate this clearly is vital.  Negotiating on your output rather than around time can help.

What do you mean by self-advocacy?

Taking responsibility and control around your needs and being able to communicate these to those around you.  Self-advocacy is similar to the concept of self-care but a term that we find people seem to relate to more actively.  At Transitioning Well, we get people to think about their self-advocacy in terms of having fuel in their tank – i.e., their professional tank, physical tank, psychological tank, emotional tank, spiritual tank and relationship tank.  We would never dream of leaving our cars to run out of petrol and then expect them to just keep running.

Libby Trickett the famous Australian swimmer after her struggle with Post Natal Depression said it best ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup!’

Do you recommend different strategies for small and large businesses?

It’s tricky sometimes for small businesses to have the resources and programs large businesses can have.  But manager capability is always important and needs to be addressed in all businesses.  In some ways, small businesses have other bonuses such as being able to have close contact with all employees and thus being able to check in regularly  

The resources you mentioned initially – EAP and Counselling – seem to be post-incident responses.   Do these resources provide any mental ill-health prevention?

While largely a tertiary intervention, EAP is encouraged to be used more preventatively and counselling too.  Being proactive and seeking help early avoids getting help only at crisis point.  Many EAP’s now have a type of manager-assist that can be really useful as a more proactive intervention whereby managers can seek a confidential guide to best support their management practices.

Kevin Jones


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