The rise of Burnout
Work can be stressful at the best of times. You might leave the office, but emails and tasks are just a glance away. The weekend was once the domain of rest and recovery, but more and more employees are finding themselves using that time to catch up on tasks not completed during the week.
The reality is that there is a real risk that workplace stress can transform into untenable physical and mental exhaustion. In recognition of this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has included burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases. According to the WHO, this isn’t a medical condition, but a phenomenon caused by the nature and circumstances of your work.
This article is going to explore this new classification by the World Health Organisation, some of the causes of burnout, and what employment law rights and remedies are available to you to ameliorate it.Burnout and Employment Law: Your Rights and Options for Managing Stress #burnout #knowyourrights Click To Tweet
What is Burnout?
According to the new revision, burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” For employees, it can manifest in a number of ways:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
While the symptoms of burnout appear across industry lines, some have suggested that burnout is more present in some industries than others. Emergency service providers, medical professionals, lawyers and other professional services have reported higher rates of burnout and poor employee retention.
One of the most common factors behind burnout is the number of hours spent at work. If you are working long hours, you are more likely to be creating the conditions that lead to burnout. Australia ranks 31 out of 40 countries in the OECD when it comes to the proportion of our workforce who are working 50 plus hours each week.
Aggravated stress may not just be a product of long hours. Bullying, harassment and victimisation at work often contribute to the circumstances of burnout. If you’ve been put through an unfair or difficult performance management process, the prospect of heightened stress and anxiety is real.
The consequences of burnout are not just the impact it has on you. The research into burnout suggests that one of its consequences is a major decline in productivity. Employers also have a vested interest in making sure that their employees’ well-being is protected.
Research by Human Resources company Kronos suggests that burnout is a problem for businesses aiming to retain their staff. The number of hours worked by employees, the level of pay and a negative experience of management are identified as the key cases of burnout amongst employees. Burnout is tough for workers, but also for labour markets and society in general. The more employers are failing to retain staff, the possible consequence is a more transient workforce, creating instability in that industry.
Managing Burnout: Whose Responsibility Is it?
While it also poses problems for employees, it is unfortunately not always the case that employers are willing to alter their policies and practises in recognition of burnout. If that is the case, you might be required to take individual steps to prevent the rise of burn-out. There are a number of steps you can take if you feel that the levels of stress you are experiencing at work are producing the symptoms described above.
Making a Flexible Working Request
Speaking to your employer about stress and the sustainability of work can be stressful itself. You might be afraid of being punished or dismissed because you raised it as an issue. The conversation around burnout regularly identifies that the more flexible working hours employers provide, the less likely burnout is to occur. Working on an individual basis, without a one size fits all policy is imperative, according to business psychologist Sarah Tottle.
The National Employment Standards give some employees the right to make a request for flexible work conditions. You can make a range of requests including to change the hours of your work, the pattern of your work and the location. Your employer can refuse the request, but they may only do so on reasonable business grounds.
In the event that your employer refuses unreasonably, you can take action under your Award, Enterprise Agreement or your contract of employment. If you face unfair dismissal as a result of making the request, you should seek legal advice about your options. To learn more about requesting flexibility and how to request them, you can read here.
Knowing your entitlements and the requirements of your role
Work can often be extremely demanding, and some employers may ask you to complete tasks that seem impossible or beyond your role. One way to prepare yourself against unreasonable directions or tasks is to be extremely familiar with both your employment contract and your employer’s policies and practises. A direction that is inconsistent with those documents may be unreasonable. Knowing what is expected of you and what the metrics of performance for your position are is a great way to understand whether your workload is inconsistent with the duties you are meant to be performing.
Managing Long Hours
As mentioned earlier, working long hours is one of the biggest causes of burnout. If you’re working full time, you might notice that your contract says your employer might request that you work reasonable additional hours beyond a 38 hour work week. This is permitted, but you are able to refuse in the event that the requested hours are unreasonable. That question might take into account a number of things including your health and safety, the needs of the business and the nature of your role. If you have questions about unreasonable overtime and your contract, you should seek legal advice.
Another way to manage the duration of your work is to ensure that you are taking the breaks that you are permitted to under your contract, award or enterprise agreement. If your work is covered by an award or an enterprise agreement, those documents will usually specify the paid and unpaid breaks for that industry or employer. You can find out whether you are covered by an award by consulting the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Pay and Conditions Tool.
You are protected from adverse consequences where you suffer disciplinary action because you took your provided breaks. Your employer can’t dismiss you or punish you because you exercised your workplace right. Doing so would breach the General Protections outlined in the Fair Work Act. If you believe this has occurred, you may be able to take action against your employer and you should acquire legal advice about doing so.
Taking Action against Bullying
Burnout may not just be about working too many hours or not feeling a connection to your work. Being subjected to bullying or unfair treatment from a colleague or employer can be extremely stressful, contributing to a potential case of burnout.
If you feel you are being bullied at work, and you have been unsuccessful in dealing with it through the normal channels, there are options available to you. The Fair Work Commission has an anti-bullying power and can intervene within 14 days of receiving an application to stop bullying in your workplace. They will attempt to resolve the matter by discussing it with you and your employer. If that fails, they can make orders that prevent bullying in the future. In order to get there, the Commission needs to be satisfied that there is unreasonable, repeated conduct which creates a risk to your health and safety. They won’t make an order to stop bullying if your employer’s conduct is found to be a reasonable management action. For example, a performance appraisal itself is unlikely to be bullying conduct. Utilising the anti-bullying provisions is one important way.
The WHO classification highlights that burnout is a serious problem for the workplace. It should be dealt with by employers ensuring that they have the right systems in place to promote the wellbeing of their workforce. However, that’s not always the case. The reality is that the solution is a mixture of employers’ management of flexibility and the sustainability of work, plus individual management of symptoms and experiences at work.
The rights and entitlements discussed in this article are available to you to help stave the symptoms of burnout. If you are having issues at work, and would like legal advice about your rights and how to assert them, you can reach out to Resolution 123 on 1300 737 123 or place an enquiry on our website.Burnout and Employment Law: Your Rights and Options for Managing Stress #flexibleworkinghours #bullying Click To Tweet
For further information on flexible work and employee rights click here