Employee burnout
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Spotting the signs of employee burnout

In 2013 the Head of Compliance at Barclays, Hector Sants, was signed off work on medical grounds due to extreme stress. He subsequently resigned. Two years previously, Lloyds Chief Executive, Antonio Horta-Osorio took two months off after suffering sleep deprivation and exhaustion.

These high-profile cases from within the UK banking sector highlight how no-one is immune from burnout. This is especially true in the high-pressure environment of investment banking.

What is employee burnout?

Employee burnout is characterised by some or all of the following symptoms: exhaustion, inefficacy, feeling overwhelmed, sleep disturbance, anxiety, a lack of concentration and low morale. Whilst not medically recognised, burnout is a term that encompasses stress, depression, chronic fatigue and reduced personal fulfilment. It can manifest in many ways; increased sick leave, lateness and presenteeism are key symptoms. If not nipped in the bud, it can easily spill out across the wider workforce in the form of negativity and dissatisfaction.

Right now, there is a perfect storm of factors contributing to the growth of employee burnout in investment banking. An industry still in recovery from the effects of the global economic crisis is now facing the fallout from the vote to leave the EU. The ever-existing threats of restructuring and uncertainty about job security have been significantly amplified by Brexit. The added pressure of greater regulatory scrutiny in the wake of the crisis has added to the workloads of already over-stretched staff. The recent demonising of the sector in the press has also contributed to the problem; people working in banking often feel they shouldn’t be talking about their own difficulties – be that with family, friends or a wider support network.

The working culture in investment banking does little to support staff, with competition – not collaboration – being the order of the day, meaning employees don’t feel they can turn to colleagues for support when they need it. Work environments have also traditionally been male-dominated and full of machismo, with little opportunity to talk about stress, exhaustion and sustainable coping mechanisms, leading sufferers to feel increasingly isolated.

The outcomes of long-term stress

In an industry that regularly works 80-120 hour weeks, annual leave should be a chance to decompress. But the advent of an ‘always on’ working culture and the ability to access work anywhere mean there’s no such thing as a complete break from the office. Increasingly clients expect staff to be available 24/7, 365 days a year, whether they are on annual leave or not, heaping on the pressure.

There are common traits among people drawn to the high-stakes, adrenalin-fuelled world of banking and finance, too. They are often very ambitious, competitive and goal-oriented with a perfectionist streak – people that have a high threshold of stress and tiredness. While this often makes them very good at what they do, it also leaves them susceptible to the downward spiral of stress and exhaustion that can lead to burnout, and they’re unlikely to ask for help until it’s too late.

The tragic outcome of long-term pressure and exhaustion can, occasionally, be suicide. Government data (accurate to end-2013) shows that suicide mortality rates per 100,000 in the City of London have consistently outnumbered any other London borough since 2009.

The cost to UK businesses

Employee burnout is hard to measure. Some sufferers may take time off citing stress, anxiety or exhaustion as the reason; some may leave the business altogether, and pursue a career in a more forgiving working environment. For a tragic few, suicide becomes the only solution to what appears to be an insurmountable problem.

Staff absence is such a significant problem for the sector that demand for group income protection – to insure financial institutions against the cost of staff sick leave – is rising steadily, at a cost of 1-1.5% of annual payroll, according to global life insurer MetLife.

Five ways to tackle employee burnout in your team

There are many ways you can help your staff to deal with feeling burnt out:

  1. Be attuned to the symptoms of burnout in your employees. Sharp decreases in performance, higher levels of sick-leave or an increase in time spent on tasks without any increase in quality are indicators that something isn’t right. Other things to watch out for are changes in attitude, a decrease in positive interaction with other team members, or stressed-out responses to everyday situations.
  2. Familiarise yourself with your wellbeing policy and the resources available that you can pass on to your staff. Mental health is steadily rising up the agenda in most financial institutions, often in collaboration with charities like BWC, with a raft of solutions such as yoga and meditation, mindfulness techniques, counselling and stress management coming to the fore.
  3. Encourage your team to strive for a better work-life balance. Ensure they can have a lunch break, that holidays are booked, and taken, and that working days end at a manageable time. Urge your staff to have a real break from the office by turning off laptops and smartphones. Discourage weekend working, and help workers create boundaries in their lives which protect activities – be that an exercise class or meal with the family – that can be regularly enjoyed. Lead by example too, to show you can ‘walk the talk’.
  4. Have an open-door approach to supporting your staff with any mental health issues which might lead to burnout. Be available to listen in an approachable, non-judgmental way and offer support. Maintain a dialogue with staff to be aware of their stress and anxiety levels, and flag up when you feel a member of staff is not taking enough time for themselves and their wellbeing, and encourage them to address it.
  5. Make staff mental health and wellbeing a part of everyday working culture and help remove any stigma it might have. Make policies and resources visible and accessible to staff, mention them frequently, and encourage staff to help and support each other when stress builds up.