Over a third of adults experienced high or extreme levels of pressure and stress always or often in the past year (35%), according to our new annual report, which warns that the UK is at risk of becoming a ‘burnt-out nation’.
Against a backdrop of rising levels of people out of work due to long-term sickness, the polling of over 2,000 UK adults by YouGov for the Mental Health UK reveals that one in five workers (20%) needed to take time off due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress in the past year.
Recognising the growing evidence that the UK is grappling with high levels of work absence and the subsequent cost to individuals, employers and the taxpayer, Mental Health UK is calling on the prime minister to convene a national summit, bringing together government ministers, employers and experts to determine how we can create healthy workplaces and best support people to stay in or return to work if they’re struggling with stress and poor mental health.
Though the causes of people taking time off work due to poor mental health are complex, our polling reveals that poor working relationships and processes could be pushing people into burnout, with more than one-third of working adults (35%) saying they do not feel comfortable letting their line managers or senior leaders know if they are experiencing high or extreme levels of pressure and stress at work. And nearly one in three (31%) said being bullied or intimidated by other colleagues had caused stress in the last year.
Meanwhile the survey suggests workplaces could be ill-prepared to support staff experiencing high levels of stress, with nearly half of workers (49%) saying their employer doesn’t have a plan to spot signs of chronic stress and prevent burnout, while a further 22% don’t know if their employer has such a plan in place.
Other factors in our jobs causing stress and contributing to burnout include a high or increased workload or volume of tasks (54%), working unpaid overtime beyond contracted hours (45%) and feeling isolated at work (42%).
And as soaring prices hit the nation’s pockets, almost four in ten workers (38%) experienced stress due to taking on additional work because of the cost-of-living crisis.
The survey also suggests that the UK is a nation of people tossing and turning at night, with six in ten saying poor sleep is contributing to stress and burnout (64%). Other factors potentially contributing to burnout in our personal lives include financial uncertainty due to the cost-of-living crisis (53%), money worries in general (53%), poor physical health (46%) and feeling isolated (43%).
Yet despite high or extreme levels of pressure and stress being common among the UK population, one in four adults (24%) feel unable to manage the stress in their lives.
When it comes to what best helps alleviate stress and prevent burnout at work, over half cited having a healthy work-life balance (56%), while four in ten said having a supportive line manager (43%) or supportive colleagues and peers (42%). Other leading factors included reasonable adjustments at work (38%), professional support for mental health such as Employee Assistance Programmes or coaching (29%) and organisations offering staff training around mental health at work (24%).
The likelihood that someone had taken time off work in the last year due to poor mental health caused by stress decreased with age, with 34% of workers aged 18 to 24-years-old having done so, compared with 15% of those aged 55 or over.
Workers aged 35 to 44-years-old were most likely to have experienced high or extreme levels of stress and pressure often or always in the past year (40%), while workers aged 55 or over were least likely (33%).
– Brian Dow, Chief Executive of Mental Health UK
“Simply put, this temperature test of the nation’s wellbeing suggests that the UK is rapidly becoming a burnt-out nation, and a worrying number of people are taking time off work due to poor mental health caused by stress.
“High levels of work absence due to poor mental health is a major challenge, but its causes are complex. Public attitudes and understanding towards mental health and work have changed, particularly as the workplace transformed overnight in response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, we live in unprecedented times, and life outside work has become increasingly difficult due to the cost-of-living crisis and pressures on public services, while global challenges such as climate change and artificial intelligence fuel stress, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.
“What is clear is that we urgently need government to lead a national conversation about how we can best help people to stay in or return to work, given the positive impact that secure employment has on mental health. Part of this will involve looking at how employers can better spot and manage stress before it becomes burnout. But the onus isn’t just on organisations, and while it is positive that staff are more likely to raise concerns about stress and mental health than in the past, we will need to consider what support and adjustments from employers are reasonable. There will be no simple, one-size-fits-all solution, but a failure to properly understand and address the challenges faced will threaten our long-term health and success as a nation.”
– Deidre Bowen, Director of National Programmes at Mental Health UK, experienced burnout while working in a previous role
“Experiencing burnout myself has truly shown me how harmful it can be to our wellbeing and why employers need to prioritise concrete actions to prevent it. In a previous role, I was being pulled in all directions while we all faced the pressure and uncertainty of the pandemic, with my team needing support around the clock, while funders and partners all looked to me for answers. I felt like I had to show everyone how strong I was and be the one who held it all together.
“With work the centre of my world, burnout crept up on me. Physically, I was exhausted, constantly jittery and battling headaches. I would drop off to sleep quickly, but wake in the night with thoughts consuming me. I had difficulty concentrating and often became distracted. I was living in a state of overwhelm, with the lines between work and life outside of it increasingly blurred. Eventually, I recognised I was burnt-out and took three weeks off work. It took me longer to recover than I anticipated, as I was exhausted emotionally, physically, and mentally.
“Over time, therapy and putting boundaries in place has made the world of difference. The biggest difference now is my change in approach to work, I openly display vulnerability: it’s not a weakness. I don’t know it all and I don’t have all the answers and as far as I am concerned, that’s ok because I have a wonderful support network in and outside of work who I can lean on and who can lend me their expertise and guidance. They also know the warning signs which suggested I’m feeling overwhelmed or stressed, and will actively encourage me to take the steps I need to prioritise my wellbeing.”
– Tom, a 32-years-old process engineer who lives in Lincoln
“I had to take time off work last year due to high levels of stress caused by my financial issues. I’d built up debts, and owed more each month than I could afford to pay. I was having to borrow money from friends and family just to get to work. My debts were ever-present in my mind, crowding everything else out, and this began to impact my work, making it difficult to do the complex calculations that I need to do in my role. And I didn’t tell work how much I was struggling, because I felt ashamed. Eventually I became burned out and depressed, and had to be signed off work by my GP.
“I explained my situation to my employer when I was returning, and they were very helpful, providing me with support and allowing me to make reasonable adjustments. It’s of course important that employees raise issues if they feel comfortable doing so, but my advice to employers would be to ‘be curious, not judgemental’. If a staff member’s work is slipping and they seem distracted, ask them if there is something wrong, and discuss together what support might help.”
– Rose, who is 29-years-old, a student, and lives in Maidstone
“Being a single mum to two while studying for a degree in psychology means I’m often spinning lots of plates. Over time it has worn me down and led to burnout. I have felt overwhelmed and defeated on a daily basis. What’s worse, burnout has hit my motivation levels, meaning I struggle to function and complete my daily tasks, falling even further behind. My relationship with my kids is affected, because I can’t be the fun mum they want me to be. And I’ve had to ask for several extensions on my university work.”
Have you been affected by burnout?
The world has transformed massively in recent years with social and technological changes, as well as global events such as the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis. The modern ways of life have drastically affected our work-life balance and stressors in life, causing many to experience burnout.
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