How flexible working could tackle burnout in the workplace

In the past two years, thanks to numerous bank holidays, many workers in the United Kingdom have engaged in a practice that has shown dramatic benefits for our mental health, work-life balance, and overall wellbeing: a four-day workweek. 


The four-day workweek isn’t a new concept. In fact, several countries – including Iceland, Belgium, and the United Kingdom itself – have trialled variations of the concept to great success. In recent years, such as the three four-day weeks in May 2023 thanks to bank holidays, many workers have had a taste of what this looks like for themselves. 

A shorter workweek is just one way to tackle and reduce the risk of burnout. A shorter workweek means a more positive work-life balance, reducing overall work-related stress and allowing for a chance to recharge. In this article, we’ll discuss how burnout can lead to stress in the workplace along with a few ways employers can prioritise worker mental health. 

What is burnout? 

Described by the World Health Organisation as an “occupational phenomenon,” burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion caused by long-term stress in your job. While it is not classified as a medical condition itself, this long-term stress can lead to depression, anxiety, and a worsening of other mental health conditions such as suicidal ideation, along with physical conditions such as arthritis. Depression and anxiety alone accounted for 12.8m lost working days in 2018/19. 

According to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the characteristics of burnout include: 

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or negative or cynical feelings related to one’s job; and 
  • reduced professional efficacy. 

So, not only does burnout affect mental health both inside and outside of the workplace, but it also affects productivity. However, studies suggest that U.K. employers may not be set up to prioritise employee mental health. In YouGov polling commissioned in 2020 by Mental Health UK, 59% of working women said they felt more prone to extreme levels of stress compared to life before the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% said their employer had no plan in place to protect them from burnout. 

At the time, financial worries were recognized as the highest likely cause of burnout, with 87% of women saying that it’s a contributing factor. Now, with the cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation, this number may be even higher. In the same polling, men were less likely to agree on the factors attributing to burnout, reporting that they felt less pressure at work and more able to handle that pressure. However, as other studies have shown, these numbers may be skewed by social pressures on men to ignore the early warning signs of work-related stress and burnout. 

Methods for Avoiding Burnout at Work 

It’s clear, then, that employers must do more to mitigate the stress levels that their employees may be experiencing, both for the benefit of worker mental health and for the good of their business overall. There are several ways this can be achieved. 

  • Creating a mentally healthy workplace Taking steps to ensure there is a mentally healthy culture at work can go a long way to catch stress before it becomes the cause of ill health. Examples include a message from the senior leadership team that taking care of mental health is important; encouraging line managers to role model mentally healthy behaviour such as taking regular breaks, using their annual leave, maintaining boundaries around working hours, and regularly checking in with their team can all contribute to this.
  • Wellbeing Recovery Action Plans, or WRAPs WRAPs are a simple but effective way to reduce the risk of burnout. These can help employers identify early signs of burnout: when someone is feeling overwhelmed, under pressure at work, or showing signs of not coping. An employee can complete a WRAP with an HR representative or a manager, and it can help them to identify effective tools to create and maintain wellness, create actionable plans to stay on track, identify risks and situations that throw them off track, and gain support in a crisis.
  • Hybrid and Home Working  Hybrid working, also known as agile working, is a type of flexible working that allows employees to work part of the time at a primary location such as an office, and part-time at a remote workplace such as at home, a co-working space, or satellite office. This can be beneficial for parents, people living with mental health conditions, people living with physical disabilities, and even businesses to widen their talent pool.
  • Flexible Working Flexible working may also refer to any working pattern that allows employees to move their shifts or compress their working week into fewer days. For example, an employee may work 30 hours across four days, giving rise to a four-day workweek with a longer weekend. Flexible working enables people to focus an additional day on hobbies, interests, family, or simply attending medical appointments or therapy without the need to use paid holiday leave. In this way, it simultaneously promotes better mental health and productivity by putting the focus on positive work-life balance. However, critics say that compressing full-time hours into four days may not be beneficial for some. Author Jonathan Malesic, Ph.D., says, “Your productivity after the 8th hour on the job probably diminishes, but the stress doesn’t.” Simply giving the employees the choice as to how they manage their working pattern can go a long way to improve employee wellbeing.
  • The Four-Day Workweek Similar to flexible working, the four-day work week allows employees to work four days per week without loss of pay. This is a system that has been trialled by many countries, including trial study by the United Kingdom’s Henley Business School, which found that a four-day workweek “increased overall quality of life for employees, with over three quarters (78%) of implementing businesses saying staff were happier, less stressed (70%) and took fewer days off ill (62%).” Nearly two-thirds reported improvements in staff productivity. At the end of the U.K.’s four-day week pilot, burnout symptoms were down by 70%, participants reported feeling happier and more fulfilled, and 92% of the companies on the six-month pilot continued. 

It is important to note that for some jobs, particularly those in the retail, service, healthcare or hospitality industries, it can be a challenge to implement flexible working and a four-day week. It is in these circumstances when extra care must be given towards creating a mentally healthy and safe workplace. Whatever method is taken by employers, promoting a positive work-life balance is essential in reducing stress and burnout in the workplace. In productivity alone, studies show that employees with positive work-life balance are 21% more productive than people with a poor work-life balance. 

As Mental Health UK allows employees to work flexibly where they are able, we asked some of our staff for their own feelings on how this helps to mitigate burnout. 

Claire Neal, Head of Workplace Mental Health at Mental Health UK, is one of those employees who compresses her hours into a four-day week. She said: 

“I really value my non-working day. It’s not what I’d call a “day off.” My Wednesday is my day to catch up with family life. I use the time to sort out school admin (like school trips, signing forms, booking parents’ evening appointments, etc.); family admin and house admin. I also use the time to reach out and support elderly family members.”

"My ‘extra’ day allows me time to get on top of the things that build up on my mental to-to list. Having a day each week to manage this mental load goes a long way towards keeping my stress levels under control.”

– Claire, Head of Workplace Mental Health - Mental Health UK

Meanwhile, Senior Digital Manager Gemma Orpwood said: 

“When I commenced my employment with Mental Health UK, I was able to compress my 35-hour week into four days, allowing me a longer weekend. It has made an immeasurable difference to my wellbeing and quality of life. In previous jobs, I felt so tired and drained when it came to Fridays that the weekend often felt rushed with limited time to relax and recharge. This often meant that I had sense of dread on Sunday that it would soon be Monday and I hadn’t been able to catch up on household chores, see parents and friends, and just take time out for me. Living with an anxiety disorder means that I often feel wiped by the end of the week as I use more emotional and physical energy than others because I find situations in daily life challenging. I can honestly say that a longer weekend allows me the time and space I need to recalibrate. I no longer dread the start of the next week, nor start Monday feeling somewhat jaded. I am certain that my productivity levels, focus and motivation for my work are all enhanced by the respite a three-day weekend provides.” 

Regardless of how employers structure their employee working patterns, it’s important that a positive work-life balance is placed front and centre. Productivity benefits aside, we must treat burnout with the utmost importance. We must make pre-emptive shifts in how we take steps to avoid burnout, not simply react to burnout when it arises and when the damage has already been done to our mental health. Treating burnout in this way will ultimately only lead to a healthier, more productive workforce. 

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