We need a national summit to tackle burnout and create healthy workplaces which best support people to stay in or return to work

Today, we released our Burnout Report, a new benchmark study conducted annually exploring the experience and prevalence of high or extreme pressure and stress in our daily lives, and the factors that contribute towards or alleviate the risk of burnout. Brian Dow, Chief Executive at Mental Health UK, reflects on the key findings of the report, and the need for national action on this issue.


In publishing this, the first of our annual burnout reports, it is important to acknowledge that a debate is raging.  Is it the case, as some would have it, that the record numbers of people who are off work due to mental ill health, simply lack the resilience that older generations possessed?  Or is it actually that mental illness was always the main cause of workplace absence but people simply lacked the confidence to acknowledge the true cause.  Even if either were true, and nothing in life is that simple, we have a problem and burying our heads in the sand or alighting on simplistic explanations will not make it go away.

Our research which we will now undertake annually shows that nine out of ten adults experienced high or extreme levels of stress last year, a figure that cuts across almost all generations, and 20% of workers needed to take time off work due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress.

Quite aside from the individual toll, it hardly needs stating that an economy which has one in five people off unwell is paying a huge cost. While workplaces are generally more alive to the importance of supporting their colleagues mental as well as physical safety, it is worrying that nearly half of those surveyed say their employer does not have a plan to spot and support people who are dealing with chronic stress.  The direct impact this will have on productivity, let alone potential unemployment for those who end up dropping out of the workplace is deeply worrying.

Burnout is not in itself a mental health condition or illness. Neither is stress. The vast majority of us (91%) experience stress and some stress in the workplace to be anticipated and expected. In fact, stress, in moderation, serves a purpose. But left unchecked sustained and severe stress poses a threat to both our physical and mental health, and in this context, levels of burnout are the bellwether of a healthy working environment.

It must be acknowledged of course burnout isn’t confined to the workplace; excessive pressures, demands, and difficulties impinge every facet of our lives. In the shadow of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis each individual faces unique challenges outside of paid employment, such as debt, fear of losing their home or livelihood, pressures around parenting, ill health and worries about the future.

It is clear that for most people the Covid-19 pandemic was an unremittingly difficult period but there were of course important social changes the occurred and in particular the flexibility around work location.  It is interesting to note that those working in an agile fashion are less likely to cite their working arrangement as a factor contributing to burnout. While many employer have had perfectly valid reasons for wishing colleagues return to a fixed base, getting those support mechanisms in place to encourage and sustain a mentally healthy workplace is even more necessary than ever.

Clearly the onus is not solely on the employer.  Self-awareness is fundamental when it comes to early identification of burnout and promoting resilience. Many more younger people feel comfortable acknowledging the stress and pressure they are feeling and while that of course ought to stimulate a conversation with their manager or employer there is a need for adjustments to be reasonable and within the ambit of support an employer is obligated to provide.  A contract is just that – an arrangement between two parties on an agreed set of terms and compromises will often need to be reached.

Yet these are undoubtedly unprecedented times.  With global challenges around issues such as climate change, artificial intelligence, population change and migration economies around the world will need to make seismic shifts to prepare for their impacts and the prospect of these factors together is for many people, young and old, a potent cause of anxiety.  The sense of the problems being just too big to handle is naturally another key factor in burnout and, in so far as any of us are able to make sense of these, an honest conversation about how we adjust is as relevant in the workplace as it is in wider society.

In publishing this report and recognising the growing evidence that the UK is grappling with high levels of work absence and its 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.

We need to face into the realities that exist if we are to find solutions that make a real impact on people’s lives.

Download our Burnout Report

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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