Burnout culture: why it’s time to rethink our approach to stress at work 

This week for Stress Awareness Month, our Digital Communications Officer, Alice, shares how a surprise adult ADHD diagnosis changed everything she knew about burnout, and suggests employers need a better approach to preventing workplace stress. 

Have you ever thought about the possibility of ADHD?’ 

It took me a while to react when I heard these words, my mind retreating to its archives to recover the only knowledge I had on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at the time: a questionable plotline in one of the early seasons of popular television show, Desperate Housewives.  

If you haven’t seen it, it involves desperate housewife Lynette (played by Felicity Huffman) getting hooked on her twin boys’ ADHD medication. For some reason, she doesn’t want to medicate her sons, even though their scenes mainly involve running around, screaming, and physically assaulting their authority figures. Instead, Lynette starts taking the medication herself to cope with their challenging behaviour, leading to a brief mental health crisis. 

Back in the real world and armed with this dubious knowledge, I was doubtful. I was seeking advice about coping with stress at work. Not for the first time in my life, I was burning out, and I didn’t understand why.  

Chronically overwhelmed

I’d never thought about ADHD before. Why would I? Only little boys had ADHD. I was seeking help for stress and anxiety like adult women are supposed to. 

From an outsider’s perspective, I was performing well at work and keeping up with life’s responsibilities. But inside I felt like an imposter. I had boundless energy but constant fatigue, my mind relentlessly whirring with ideas that I couldn’t seem to execute. Time was a mystery to me. I was always stressed, forgetful, unfocused, bored, and my motivation was rock-bottom. Is life supposed to be this hard, I thought, or am I just weak? 

So I started to research ADHD and came across this article by Noelle Faulker in the Guardian: The lost girls: ‘Chaotic and curious, women with ADHD all have missed red flags that haunt us’. 

It changed everything. 

Faulker begins by describing her own experience seeking help for burnout: 

‘It felt like my brain had been tossed into a washing machine, and all of the delicate bits that made it sparkle had dissolved. Everything took three times longer than it should have. Somehow, over the past few years, my already-frayed cognitive controls had just … evaporated. “I can’t keep it up any more,” I said wearily. “It” being life. I wasn’t suicidal; I was chronically overwhelmed.’ 

This is me, I thought. Did I write this article and forget about it? That is the kind of thing I would do… 

It was this article that first taught me that how differently ADHD can present in women in girls, and how underdiagnosed and under-researched it is: 

‘The default assumption about ADHD is that it’s what makes little boys disruptive. But it can also make little girls feel like they’ll never be good enough’. 

Rethinking burnout and stress at work 

My experience being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult has made me think a lot about burnout. Before my diagnosis, my experiences at school, university and at work left me convinced that I was the problem. I’ve been described as a ‘challenge’, too sensitive, too demanding, too much of a perfectionist, too unwilling to pay my dues. It made sense that no one seemed prepared to help me. The message was clear: life is hard, stress is normal, just learn to cope. 

I know now that this isn’t true. Chronic stress shouldn’t be normal, and I’m angry for me and anyone else that has ever been made to feel that way.  

I’m also sad because I know I’m not alone. In workplaces across the country, coping with stress is still treated like the personal responsibility of individual staff members – it’s your job to recognise if you’re stressed and to do something about it. 

Yet isn’t it employers who are responsible for creating and nurturing workplace culture where burnout can happen in the first place? 

It’s time to rethink our approach to preventing burnout at work. 

What is burnout?

Humans are not suited to chronic stress, although small doses can be healthy; at its primal level, stress is a fear response that helps us identify and react to danger, for example: 

‘I need to run away from that sabre tooth tiger before it eats me’ – once you’ve escaped, the stress goes away. 

But in modern times, although we spend less time running away from tigers, we’re exposed to more long-term stressors, for example: 

‘I need to answer 150 emails before my boss eats me’ – the emails keep coming, tomorrow there’ll be 150 more, the stress does not go away. 

When a person experiences chronic stress for too long, they reach a point of mental and physical exhaustion: burnout. 

Chronic workplace stress is often the culprit, but any long-term stress can eventually lead to burnout, for example: 

  • The financial pressures of the cost-of-living crisis.  
  • Caring responsibilities. 
  • Taking on the bulk of the household management and childcaring, like in the case of our poor desperate housewife, Lynette. 

We usually identify burnout as a set of symptoms, including: 

  • Feeling down, sad or depressed. 
  • Feeling irritable and pessimistic. 
  • Feeling overwhelmed. 
  • Withdrawing from others. 
  • Reduced self-confidence. 
  • Finding it hard to concentrate, often leading to ‘silly’ mistakes. 
  • Lack of motivation. 
  • Procrastination. 
  • Feeling physically unwell more often, for example, fatigue, headaches, colds, and stomach aches. 

Research shows we lose 13.7 million working days each year due to workplace stress, anxiety and depression, costing employers £28.3 billion per year.1  

Fortunately, workplaces are becoming more and more aware of the risks of burnout, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. But the problem is, we still treat stress and burnout at work like a personal problem when it is almost always a result of workplace culture. 

Burnout culture at work 

Here’s a fictional example of how burnout becomes an inevitable part of workplace culture:  

  • Burnout Ltd, hires a new employee, Bernie, to join their ‘fast paced, competitive work environment’. 
  • Burnout Ltd is growing rapidly and Bernie’s workload grows with it. But Bernie can unwind at ‘beer Fridays’ in the office kitchen and he has a very generous annual leave allowance. 
  • Bernie has regular supervisions with his manager, but they only ever talk about work performance, never wellbeing. 
  • Bernie books some time off for a well-needed holiday, but his workload remains the same. He works late nights to get everything done in time. 
  • While he’s on holiday, Bernie’s team mates continue to copy him into emails and add tasks to his to-do list. 
  • When Bernie returns to work, he is overwhelmed by hundreds of emails and tasks. 
  • Bernie tells his manager that he’s struggling with the workload. His manager reduces his workload by sharing some of his projects with his colleagues, disclosing Bernie’s workplace stress without his consent. 
  • Bernie is so overwhelmed that he starts making mistakes. His equally stressed team mates are annoyed and start leaving Bernie out of important meetings. 
  • Bernie’s work-life balance is also going downhill because he feels exhausted on his days off. 
  • Bernie’s manager notices he’s more irritable than usual and is taking a lot of sick days for things like headaches and stomach aches. They check-in with Bernie to talk about how Burnout Ltd can support his wellbeing, but at this stage, Bernie just worries that they are looking for an excuse to fire him. 
  • Bernie’s manager suggests that he takes some time off work to recover from stress. Bernie feels like this would make him more stressed but sees no other option. 
  • The entire time Bernie is signed off work, he feels anxious about going back. He worries about what his colleagues will think and that he won’t be considered for opportunities anymore. 
  • Bernie goes back to work a few weeks later to find that nothing has changed. In the end, Bernie quits his job for the sake of his mental health. 

Bernie’s case hopefully shows how entrenched burnout culture can be, and how it can be perpetuated by everyone in the workplace. Here are just some of the mistakes Burnout Ltd made: 

  • Creating a workplace environment where being extremely busy is valued. 
  • Offering perks but not enabling employees to use those perks effectively, for example, Bernie’s holiday ended up causing him more stress.  
  • Failing to protect Bernie at work, for example, disclosing his stress to other employees and allowing other employees to treat him unfairly. 
  • Failing to support Bernie until his only choice was to take time off work – a reactive rather than a preventative approach. 
  • Treating Bernie’s workplace stress as an isolated health issue rather than an opportunity to improve. 

How to spot the signs of burnout (before there are signs)

So, what can we learn from fictional Burnout Ltd’s mistakes? Here are some things employers can do to recognise the signs of burnout culture and support their staff: 

Communicate with employees 

It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many employers don’t talk to their employees about stress.  

Research from Mental Health UK suggests that just 23% of workers know whether their employer has a plan to help spot chronic stress and burnout, while 1 in 5 reported feeling ‘unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace’.2 

If more employees were aware of the support and help available to them through their employer, would they feel more able to cope? 

Talking about stress at work also helps to break down the stigma that nurtures burnout culture. If staff feel able to talk about stress without fear of judgment, they can access help much earlier.  

Workplace structure & regular supervisions 

Workplace structure can have a huge impact on staff wellbeing. For example, if a staff member doesn’t know who their ‘official’ line manager is, doesn’t have a defined team, and doesn’t have regular supervision meetings, where are they supposed to turn if they need help? 

Try to: 

  • Create a clear management hierarchy. 
  • Define your teams/departments – avoid ‘silo-working’ where employees work alone or with no regular colleagues. 
  • Implement policies to ensure line managers and their staff are holding regular supervision meetings to discuss workplace wellbeing and resolve any issues causing the employee stress.  

Identify behaviours and processes that perpetuate burnout culture 

Do a ‘burnout risk assessment’ to try to identify behaviours and processes that contribute to workplace stress. 

For example, if staff members often ask to work remotely when they’re ill instead of taking time off, ask why is that? Is presenteeism an issue? Are staff worried about falling behind? If so, could you implement a procedure for covering work when staff are off sick? 

The key is listening to staff. For example: 

  • Ensure line managers are holding regular supervision meetings with staff. 
  • Create an independent team that staff can contact if they have wellbeing concerns. 
  • Hold meetings specifically for staff to raise issues. 
  • Set up an anonymous suggestion box in the office. 

Also, critically review your policies. Do they encourage a culture where constructive feedback is welcomed and listened to? For example: 

  • Do your staff know where to find your written policies?  
  • Is diversity & inclusion woven throughout them all, or just limited to one D&I policy?  
  • Do you have specific policies for staff who often face barriers and discrimination at work? For example, do you have a neurodiversity policy? Do you have a policy for staff to raise complaints about racism at work? What about for staff going through the menopause?  
  • Do you have a clear process for staff to request reasonable adjustments if they need them? 

Don’t ditch the beer fridge

Providing staff with perks like drinks at the office, lunchtime yoga or gym memberships are still great perks that happy, healthy and motivated staff benefit from. 

The problem is when employers rely on these perks to mask a stressful work culture, for example, providing an on-site cafeteria to encourage staff to work late and eat all their meals at the office. 

Taking a psychological, adversity & trauma-informed approach to preventing burnout 

We often talk about workplace stress and burnout as a universal concept that affects every person equally. But workplace stress manifests and affects different individuals in different ways. It’s one of the reasons why at Second Step, we’ve built celebrating diversity into our values, and we take a psychological, adversity & trauma-informed approach to everything we do, from our work with clients to supporting our staff’s wellbeing. This means taking the time to understand: 

  • How someone’s past experiences have shaped their life. 
  • How those experiences continue to affect them. 
  • The social context of someone’s experiences, such as racism, neurodiversity, and inequality. 

You can find more information about becoming psychological, adversity and trauma-informed here.  

As a neurodivergent colleague here at Second Step, I can personally vouch for how much of a difference it makes to be part of a team that genuinely listens and supports each other at work. 

Our work for Stress Awareness Month 2023 

This Stress Awareness Month, we’re raising awareness of how harmful stress at work can be and sharing tools to help you reduce stress in the workplace. 

Read more about stress in the workplace on our News Hub and follow us on Instagram or Twitter for our latest updates – @wearesecondstep.  

If you want to read more about ADHD and neurodiversity in general, former Second Step colleague Dulseigh recently wrote a great article on supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. 

Also check out this article by our Bristol Wellbeing College blogger Chrissy about ADHD and creativity which talks more about ADHD in women. 

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