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Friday Workplace Briefing

Burnout – What is it? How is it impacting our staff? And what you need to do!

In this week’s Friday Workplace Briefing, we discuss the issue of burnout – what it is and how it is impacting staff and businesses.

Individuals are increasingly beginning to experience the impact of burnout, particularly managers and supervisors, as they try to juggle competing responsibilities and take on too much. It’s a very real problem that is often ignored!

Andrew Douglas and Nina Hoang take us through how burnout effects staff and businesses, how you should be responding to it and what you can do to mitigate the effects of burnout in your business.

To view the full episode and catch up with the week’s latest news and developments please visit this link.

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About the Hosts

Managing Principal - Victoria

Senior Associate - Workplace Relations

Episode Transcript

Andrew Douglas: Well, let’s talk about burnout.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Good, if any two people could talk about it, it’d be you and I. I thought I’d give you the World Health Organisation definition and then we’ll get into the practical effects. It is three things, feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job and decreased professional efficiency. Great book. Not our sponsor.

Can I just say this is a pretty first world problem in some ways, in the sense that there are people around the world who don’t know this is burnout and who struggle every day with these things.

But the reality is, since COVID particularly, the level of disruption and uncertainty that’s hit our life has meant that people feel significantly more challenged. Now you can look at Arthur, you can look at Clarkson, who’s the Hawthorn coach? You can look at the Richmond coach. They’ve just gone, “I can’t take it anymore.” Well, they’ve got media glare. They’ve got all sorts of allegations made against one of them. They’re exceptional circumstance. I don’t want us to talk about that burnout, because that has always existed.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: It’s come under a number of different names over time and it’s often confused with depression and anxiety or just simply being so hurt by the levels of pressure. But the fact is, all of us at work have this risk of suddenly feeling a sense of loss of energy.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Particularly where work is unrewarding, relentless. There’s no reward coming from it. There seems to be no end to it. There’s no safe place in it all.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: You then suddenly wake up one morning going, actually I’m not too keen about going to work. You see this with young kids who’ve had trouble at school, not wanting to go to school. It’s like that. But then their skills start to drop away and as their skills drop away, so does your self-esteem.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: And the cycle grows faster and faster. Now that’s what burnout is.

Nina Hoang: And it happens more commonly than people think.

Andrew Douglas: Well I think you said it happened to me. You know, I lost an uncle who was very close to me.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: But we are busy and I actually was really struggling for two or three days to do any work and Nina and the team got behind and gave me a bit of space and Nina actually said to me, “Look, you are struggling, you need to step back.” And so let’s talk about that for me, so we can actually extrapolate it to other people. The answer for me and the answer throughout this book is to reflect what is it that is causing the impact upon me? Is it the way, and this is a way of looking at psychological analysis.

Nina Hoang: It basically comes out psychological analysis.

Andrew Douglas: Psychological analysis. Is it the flow of work I get, is the volume of work? Is it the skill base?

Nina Hoang: Is it the lack of support?

Andrew Douglas: Support. Is it the lack of reward and recognition?

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Am I treated differently than others?

Nina Hoang: Yeah. And I just want to say lack of reward and recognition isn’t just monetary. It can be things like people just acknowledging the effort that you put in.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah.

Nina Hoang: And when you don’t and you feel like you’re just kind of behind a wall plugging away, but no one recognises it, it really burns on the brain.

Andrew Douglas: And what you’re doing doesn’t matter.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Then it really does knock out. And when everyone’s busy around you, you’ve got your head down, your tail up. You’re not thinking as a leader.

Nina Hoang: No.

Andrew Douglas: My need to reward and say to people, “Look, that was a great job Nina.” And equally Nina’s busy and she’s not saying, “Andrew, God, that was great. We got that out last night.” You’re just trying to get it done.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: So look, we sort of know what it is. Okay. It’s those three things. And what I want to say, and I don’t have any data and the book doesn’t give any data. What it does say that it is an escalating problem.

Nina Hoang: Oh yeah.

Andrew Douglas: It’s driven by a sense of a lack of safety in work, a predictability and understanding of what tomorrow will look like. And COVID shook people up in such a way that they’ve not been able to get it back. So I want you to understand it is prevalent in your workplace, one. Two, what do I do about it? Well, the first thing is I need to collect a bit of evidence about how people are feeling, because waiting for it to happen is fatal. You know when.

Nina Hoang: Yeah then it’s too late.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah. When it, when I started to get like this I had Nina intervened and I did, I stepped back for half a day and just went, “No, I need to grieve my uncle. I need to stop work for a day and I need to just spend time with myself.” And it was some of the…and I mean I’m very incredibly thankful that Nina raised it but I had to reflect about what were the pressures that were hitting me and was it reasonable for me to do things in relation to some of those pressures. The grief was part of what I was in, so it was very reasonable for me to do it. But as a leader, you’ve got to go on that evidence. Okay. You’ve got to be monitoring people’s health ’cause that’s your obligation.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: You’ve got to look at the types of hazards that are around. And the most important thing is you’ve got to have a relationship.

Nina Hoang: Yeah, because most of the time when people are in those stages and are suffering from burnout, they themselves will not recognise it until it’s too late.

Andrew Douglas: No, no. And they feel they’ve got to keep going.

Nina Hoang: Yeah. And so that’s why the relationship is important because you can notice changes in behaviour. You can notice someone looks a little bit flat and hear tonal shifts and things like that, which are all such important indicators.

Andrew Douglas: So let’s, so we’ve got the first part which is, what is the evidence? Second, in relationship terms in monitoring health, can you see those hazards? Only if you’ve got a relationship where you notice those changes that are occurring. Those changes are really observable that you actually see tiredness in people. You’ll see people throw their hands up. They seem despairing. They seem like this will never stop.

Nina Hoang: Yeah. They say things are just okay, yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah. But you also see their professional performance drop away and that is the test.

Nina Hoang: Things will start slipping.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah. So then you’ve got your hazard identification process. But the answer is what are the controls? These are really straightforward. The most important thing is to say to the person, let’s stop and look at what are the things that are impacting you. Let’s list it. Because we know in workers’ comp claims, psychological claims, 70% is external.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: In privacy terms, I’m allowed to say to Nina. “Nina what outside of work, where do you feel the stresses are?” “I’m planning to get married and I can’t choose the right venue.” Sorry, it was just a joke. Okay, but to get them down and say, “Look, can we rate these out of 10?”

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Level of impact on each one. You know the venue. Oh it’s frustrating, but it’s five. Okay?

Nina Hoang: Yeah. And how can I help you?

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, yeah. And each one go, well can I do something about that? Well, are you going to have a chat with your family to work out and give someone else some of that responsibility? Does it have to be you?

Nina Hoang: Yeah, call your venue guy.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, call your venue guy. But when it deals with work, you know talk to about workflow. Tell me the nature of the work you’re getting. Are there issues about that work? Which is creating particular impact? It’s just relentless. Okay.

What do you need to take that sense of relentlessness away? Do you need a couple days off? Sounds like an easy, too easy. But actually for me, when Nina suggests it was half a day of turning my phone off and in that time I shed a few tears. I sat alone for a while and I could actually feel myself healing inside as I went through it.

Nina Hoang: You just need time.

Andrew Douglas: But you do need to listen. Secondly, okay, you told me what you’re getting in workflow, actually I can control and adjust some of that. And actually what you’ve done is amazing. You then go back to that reward and recognition and say “Actually I had no understanding of how much work was sitting in front of you nor of what was coming towards you.” And that was the major impact. ‘Cause you’ve rated that 10 as being the biggest issue, but if you don’t risk rate, what are the inputs towards burnout?

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: You then can’t even begin the control.

Nina Hoang: Or make a plan.

Andrew Douglas: So, rules, one, give the person a place of safe reflection. Two, risk rate the inputs that are leading towards that, be open and safe in that discussion and not punitive. Reward the achievements that have been achieved. Four, be honest about the impact it’s having on the person and their work. And that you’re not judging them for that.

Nina Hoang: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Andrew Douglas: But that is the hazard you’ve identified. That’s driving the change. And as Nina said, people crave certainty. Create a plan, which is a first iteration and say “Let’s give this a go for a couple of days. Let’s come back, let’s look at where the risk rating has gone and go back and redo it.”

And remember in the burnout, if we get it early enough, with me half a day to a day, but for some people it’s going to be a week, two weeks. And for some people actually the work they do is not in a safe working environment and the continuation in their work will not be safe.

Nina Hoang: And that is will damage them.

Andrew Douglas: Quite a different discussion. But it’s one you need to have.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: So you can read books like this. You can read all the latest data on it. What I do want to say is they’re the five key steps. They cost you nothing.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: This is not a thing of sending someone off to a psychologist. It’s not a question of saying have they got depression, have they not? It is actually making sure the person feels listened to and that you walk out the back end with an understanding for them that you care about them, that you’re getting in behind them and that you both have a plan that you both have responsibilities to working on. It works. I can tell you I’m an example of it. It works.

Nina Hoang: We all have had it one time or another and it really does work. And it’s really important because we are seeing trends, like even just if I speak to my friends, you know, clients, things like that you can see everyone’s getting tired and worn out. So it’s out there and it’s silent but it’s out there and you need to address it.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, and if you do address it you build an enormous story around who you are as an organisation and a people, which is a brand. But most of all, you stop harm. And you know, starting at the beginning of our conversation today, our obligations as employers is to stop harm.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: We are moral people. We don’t hurt people.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Right, let’s go onto our case study.

Nina Hoang: Yeah, we better rush.

Andrew Douglas: We better rush our case study. Off we go.

Nina Hoang: Donna was not easy to work with. She was opinionated and often rude. Cedric was her boss. He put up with it because she was the only one of his staff who could use the duct flanging machine at the Broadmeadows factory of Sharp Sheetmetal’s Pty Ltd. (SS). On the Sheetmetal rolling line, there were four plant operators. Multi-skilling had moved three of the four. Donna was the fourth up to a higher classification.

But Donna’s attempts at training others were not successful. All complained it was Donna’s manner. Donna, the ex-wife of the production manager Jim, received a bump in classifications when she was married to Jim four years ago. Even with the multi-skilling jump for the others they remained one classification level beneath Donna, who was not multi-skilled.

Cedric observed Donna upbraid Sharon, the plant operator on the metal fabricator. Donna called her dumb and stupid mole. Donna alleged that Sharon had tried to crack on to Donna’s new boyfriend at after work drinks. When Sharon tried to walk away and say it wasn’t true, Donna ran at her, grabbed her by her arm and swung around to face her then spat in her face. Sharon ran off crying.

20 minutes later Sharon came up to Cedric and said, “You saw that, what are you going to do? She’s crazy and it is not safe to work with her.” Cedric said he will not get involved in the personal disputes between the two women. Sharon complained to the owner Wendy. Wendy had known for a long time of Donna’s issues. She didn’t intervene out of deference to Jim. She told Cedric to have a word with Donna. Cedric did. It didn’t go down well.

When Sharon returned to work three days later, Donna came up to her, hit her in the face with a clenched fist, swore at her and told her to never come back. Sharon left work went straight to hospital where an x-ray revealed a compressed fracture of her cheekbone and never came back to work. Wendy, upon learning about the incident summarily terminated Donna’s employment.

Andrew Douglas: There you go. What a great story that was, yeah. All right. One, could Donna say the dismissal was harsh and unreasonable because of the past condonation and provocation of believing Sharon had sex with her boyfriend?

Nina Hoang: Look, I think condonation is an issue but she assaulted someone else.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah.

Nina Hoang: So that’s immediate…

Andrew Douglas: Can I just, can I say to you, so if it was just repeated bad behaviour, the condonation, which means you can’t punish what you approve.

Nina Hoang: Permit.

Andrew Douglas: Permit basically, but courts and commissions will not allow violence and they will push a side condonation. So no, she would not succeed in her claim.

Donna did bring an unfair dismissal claim. And SS put in a letter of settlement offering to walk away with no payment. Donna laughed at the offer and rejected it. SS succeeded the hearing and Donna was not reinstated and there was no award of compensation. Would Donna have to pay SS’s legal costs? That’s the Sheetmetal business.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: What do you reckon?

Nina Hoang: Look…

Andrew Douglas: No chance.

Nina Hoang: I don’t think.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah.

Nina Hoang: Yeah, because they, it wasn’t enough of the case to say it was wholly vexatious to bring.

Andrew Douglas: Oh no, I think she, you know Donna has an argument around condonation. Donna does have a bit of an argument on provocation. She’s got no past priors.

Nina Hoang: Yep.

Andrew Douglas: So there’s a bit of harshness there. You would have to offer money to get that across the table and you’d have to offer sort of five to 10 grand to make that stick, and even then you’d struggle with it a bit. Three, was Sharon’s injury notifiable? She left work bleeding from the nose and said she was going to the hospital and sent back the emergency doctors workers’ comp certificate of capacity saying she had a fractured cheekbone. So was it notifiable?

Nina Hoang: Yeah, if you go to hospital, it’s notifiable.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, done. Thanks, so I just wanted to get that one in. Nice. Was Donna’s behaviour bullying?

Nina Hoang: Towards Sharon?

Andrew Douglas: Yes.

Nina Hoang: Bullying’s got to be repeated behaviour.

Andrew Douglas: I think there was repeated, this is a history of it. Assuming there was other behaviour.

Nina Hoang: If there was other behaviour. But it only seems like this was the first incident, and this the second incident.

Andrew Douglas: So let’s assume there was past repeated…

Nina Hoang: There’s definitely harassment.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, hurt harm or humiliate, second element.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Three, made that unsafe for work. I think it probably was even with the two because the exceptional nature of both. It’s probably get repeated in there. Five, could SS, Wendy, Jim and Cedric be charged under safety law? If so, under what provisions and what penalty, if any would they be liable for? And I’m looking at the time I don’t have a lot of time. Yeah, SS definitely has a primary duty breach. There’s no doubt about it.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: That’s for all the psychological hazards and differential treatment.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: Allowing bad behaviour. Allowing harassing behaviour.

Nina Hoang: Yeah. Yeah, and section 144 for Wendy ’cause she knew about the past.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, so she’s an officer and therefore had both knowledge of the past and also the capacity to influence.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: So she has a primary duty breach. Wendy’s probably a bit worse. So Wendy is looking at reckless endangerment, because she was, she deliberately took no action based on the knowledge of Jim.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: And that means that SS probably has reckless endangerment running out it as well. But more than likely both primary duty breaches. Jim, I think. I think Jim’s just an unlucky soul caught in the middle. I don’t think he’s going to be charged with anything.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: But Cedric is in deep shit.

Nina Hoang: Yeah, because he didn’t do enough.

Andrew Douglas: Well he didn’t do anything. Really. And when he did do something, he knew it didn’t work.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: So he’s probably going to be a section 25 breach, which is,

Nina Hoang: And reckless endangerment.

Andrew Douglas: And a risk of reckless endangerment. My gut feeling is all primary duty breaches, the total cost for everyone involved, probably three to $400,000 in penalties. But if it’s reckless endangerment…

Nina Hoang: Jail.

Andrew Douglas: Yeah, well jail would certainly fine would be in seven or $800,000. SS had a remuneration of 7.5 million in a manufacturing classification at a premium before the incident of $420,000. What would the impact of the premium over the life of the premium sensitivity based on the 75% and lift in the manufacturing classification? I think you’re going to look at around about 300,000 one year, you’re going to look at around about, which will bring up to about 750. So the risk for here is around about a million dollars in premium impact.

Nina Hoang: Wow.

Andrew Douglas: By not doing anything. So there you go guys. That’s it. Thanks Nina. It’s lovely to have your back here.

Nina Hoang: Yeah.

Andrew Douglas: We do thumbs up. We’re both a bit tired. We’re not quite burned out. There’s the book, okay.

Nina Hoang: Yeah. Give us the thumbs up. Thank you, bye.

Andrew Douglas: Bye-bye.

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