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Burnout within the Public Sector: What Is It And What Can We Do About It?

Burnout within the Public Sector: What Is It And What Can We Do About It?

over 1 year ago By Emily Harris
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“I’m over this” or “I don’t even care anymore…” You may have heard these phrases occasionally uttered at work - or even said them yourself when facing a looming deadline or experiencing back and forth on a particular project. It’s common to experience work-related stress from time-to-time and can even be a good thing in moderation; a shot of adrenaline can be just what people need to get through an important presentation or meet particular targets. However, there is a fine line between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ stress and unfortunately for many workers within the public sector, the line has been crossed during COVID-19.

The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, but for those responsible for managing the safety of our local communities, the added stress, anxiety and workload created from COVID-19 has created the perfect storm for burnout. Victoria’s Health Minister Jenny Mikakos tweeted earlier this month apologising if what she has done during COVID-19 is not enough, while in late August, Victorian State premiere Daniel Andrews hit his 50th straight coronavirus update in a single day. On a community level, local governments and councils are experiencing dramatic increases in their workload as they manage the fall out of COVID-19; redundancies and hire freezes, project deadlines pushed forward to help accelerate the economic recovery and managing new policies and restrictions to ensure the safety of their region.

With no definite end of the pandemic in sight and thus indirectly no end in sight for the workloads of essential workers, both employers and organisations need to be aware of the signs of burnout and what can be done to help manage the sector’s collective mental health during this time.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout was initially considered a problem related to life management but in 2019, the World Health Organisation re-labelled the syndrome as an international ‘occupational phenomenon’ and the result of chronic workplace stress that had not been successfully managed.

While burnout is still a relatively new psychological concept (two Australian-first studies looking into the phenomenon have only been released this year) the following symptoms indicate an individual may be suffering from burnout:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Lack of motivation or passion
  • Lack of concentration, memory loss or brain fog
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Physical symptoms such as aches, headaches and nausea

Research indicates that the causes of burnout are primarily job-related stressors (although there are cases of individuals experiencing burnout outside of work). While stressors differ across occupations, they originate from the same key issues; the demanding and relentless nature of the job paired with limited resources and support.

Delving more deeply, studies have also identified a higher number of burnout cases within the public sector, which they believe is caused because of the added ‘emotional labour’ that comes with the job. Employees within ‘human services professions’ often have to suppress their own emotions in order to perform their job (e.g. always being polite to customers) and have the added pressure of knowing their decision-making will have a direct impact on others. This emotional exhaustion is a key dimension of job induced burn out.



Burnout vs. Stress

Despite stress and burnout being intrinsically linked, experts state that it’s important to be able to differentiate between the two. While stress causes an instant physical reaction, burnout has more of an emotional impact. According to psychiatrist Professor Gordon Parker AO, founder of the Black Dog Institute, stress can be explained as fight or flight mode- when an individual experiences adrenaline that motivates them to act. Alternately, burnout is when the motivation has gone. Sufferers have described it as a feeling of continuous fatigue and disconnection from activities that would otherwise bring them meaning or purpose.

Another key factor between burnout and stress is time. In their recent study, The University of New South Wales School of Psychiatry found a direct correlation between the length of recovery after ‘stress induced activity’ and burnout; essentially the more of a recovery period respondents felt they had in between bouts of stress (like a big project or event), the less likely they experienced burnout symptoms in the long run. These findings are particularly significant when considering the constant state of flux of COVID-19, which makes it that much harder for our essential workers to find time to ‘recover’ and switch off.

How can we minimise the risk of burnout?

Obviously, burnout has negative impacts on the mental health of the individual, but it is also detrimental to our nation’s productivity. Medibank estimated that stress related presenteeism and absenteeism from work is costing the Australian economy $14.81 billion a year while 3.2 days per worker are believed to be lost each year through workplace stress. Furthermore, with the public sector playing such an important role in Australia’s defence against COVID-19, it is vital that they feel supported and mentally strong enough to perform at their best.  

While there is no one solution to fit everyone’s needs, both the Australian Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have some general recommendations for workers suffering symptoms of burnout:

For individuals

  • If you’re having trouble sleeping, set aside some time before bedtime to do things to help you relax. Try meditating, relaxation breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • If you’re coming off the back of a long stretch of shifts, remember it may take several days of extended sleep (for example, 10 hours) before you begin to feel recovered. Give yourself time to recover.
  • Try and exercise regularly and eat a daily serving of fruit and vegetables
  • Take breaks during your work day- even if it’s just a few minutes to take a ‘breather’.
  • Use a buddy system while you’re at work. Check in with each other to ensure everyone is coping with work hours and demands.
  • Watch yourself and your coworkers for signs of fatigue — (yawning, difficulty keeping your eyes open, and difficulty concentrating.
  • When you see something, say something to your coworkers so you can prevent workplace injuries and errors.
  • Find out if your employer has a formal program to help you manage fatigue on the job.
  • Report any fatigue-related events or close-calls to a manager to help prevent injuries and errors.
  • Do not work if your fatigue threatens the safety of yourself or others. Report to a manager when you feel too tired to work safely.
  • Try and keep in regular contact with family and friends even if self-isolating

For Employers

  • Establish clear coordination and communication between management and workers through things like a Fatigue Risk Management Plan or strategies for fatigue mitigation on the job. Share and ensure that employees understand these processes.
  • Spot the signs and symptoms of fatigue (e.g., yawning, difficulty keeping eyes open, inability to concentrate) in yourself and your employees and take steps to mitigate fatigue-related injury or error.
  • Develop processes to relieve a worker from their duties if they are too fatigued to work safely.
  • Provide information for workers on the consequences of sleep deprivation and resources to assist workers manage fatigue.
  • Allow staff enough time to organize their off-duty obligations and get sufficient rest and recovery in between their shifts or work weeks.

It’s important to recognise that these are stressful and unusual circumstances for everyone, and that while it can seem counterproductive in the moment, taking stock of one’s own mental health can be the most productive thing our public sector workers can do; for their own safety and the safety of their local community. For those that feel they need additional support, there are also a number of services willing to help, including R U OK, Lifeline, Beyond Blue and The Black Dog Institute.