Burnout and Mental Health in the Workplace
Once associated specifically with unresolvable job-related stress, burnout quickly made itself a household name after 2020. Burnout is “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress”. Many of us are no strangers to times of stress and anxiety, but the pandemic brought with it overwhelming, unpredictable events along with the disruption of work, education, healthcare, the economy, relationships, and many other aspects of life. In a matter of weeks, the unemployment rate rivaled that of the Great Depression and many faced a multitude of insecurities in their normal lives. Due to the upheaval of normal life, burnout left many feeling like they were burning a candle at both ends.
Frontline workers, essential workers, and caregivers that have worked throughout the pandemic and have suffered from resource and staff shortages were identified to be at a higher risk for burnout. Professions such as these face a unique risk for a different kind of burnout: compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can include, “emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another” especially when those in their care are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering. The major difference between compassion fatigue and types of burnout seen in other occupations is the presence or continued exposure of trauma.
Access to mental health care was a concern before the pandemic. After the pandemic, new and existing barriers to accessing these services were exacerbated. The mental health care system is (and was) failing to meet people’s needs. The impact of the pandemic placed more pressure on an already strained mental health care system. Due to shortages in areas, such as, mental health professionals, psychiatric hospital beds, a lack of in-network options, inability to afford mental health care or healthcare coverage, or denial of insurance coverage, it is time to start looking for more upstream approaches to dealing with mental health. Since individuals spend about one-third of their lives at work, we can start by focusing on transforming the workplace.
Nationwide, about 1 in 5 adults are living with a mental health condition, 91 percent of employees report that job-related stress has a negative impact on the work, and 42 percent of employees left a job due to burnout. Many employees don’t feel comfortable disclosing mental health conditions due to reasons like fear of losing a job or promotion, worry about judgement or stigma, being misunderstood, not wanting to be seen as receiving special treatment, or harassment or bullying from others. Mental health conditions have a significant effect on workplace productivity; 27 workdays are lost each year due to sick days and cost about $105 billion per year in lost productivity in the workplace.
Employers have an opportunity to openly address mental health in the workplace that can go beyond mental health services. Some promising practices that employers are adopting to reduce or prevent burnout are included in the resource cards below.
Written by: Danielle Castilleja, MPH. Danielle is a second-year MPH Community and Behavioral Health student at the Colorado School of Public Health. She recently completed an internship with Community Commons.