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Is there a link between flexible working and burnout?

As we've discussed in previous blogs, our health and our workplace are intrinsically linked. We've looked at 'Protecting your employees' mental health and wellbeing' and how businesses can establish a wellbeing culture. We've covered 'Hybrid working: It's here to stay but will it work for your business?' where we give guidance on how to set up a Hybrid Working policy and offer suggestions about what companies can offer employees in the absence of such a policy - if the hybrid model isn't a good match for the organisation.

In our first blog in the flexible working series, we ask 'Why is burnout on the increase when flexible working has become more relevant?'. Why has the pandemic compounded the problem of burnout rather than solved it? We offer practical advice to employers about how to avoid employees feeling the onset of burnout. 

And in our second blog 'Flexible working is key to your business' success' we discuss the real benefits of flexible working for both employee and employer and what processes will need to be put in place in order to offer flexible working to your employees. 

In our last blog covering flexible working, we seek to identify both pre-burnout and burnout symptoms and how both conditions are classified and defined by their behaviours and attitudes. 

Defining job burnout

Before you, the employer, address any concerns you may have about an employee, you'll need to understand what job burnout is and why it's different from other mental illnesses. Flexible working and hybrid working, put in place in response to lockdown restrictions may, for some, increase symptoms and compound chronic work stress. These changes in our working practices may also make it more difficult to assess how someone is coping day to day. 

Burn-out was included in the WHO's 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. Whilst not classified as a medical condition, it was deemed significant in May 2019 and listed in ICD-11 within a work or job context. 

The World Health Organization's definition:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

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

The concept of chronic job stress was first recognised by a New York based psychologist, Herbet Freudenberger. Working with volunteers at a drug and homeless rehabilitation centre, he observed the volunteers who worked with the residents. Exposed to intense situations, sustained for some time, led the volunteers to feel demotivated, depressed and emotionally drained. Once highly motivated individuals, the volunteers were now cynical, unenthusiastic and detached - behaviours brought on by prolonged overwork and a stressful work environment.

What is important for employers to understand is that burnout develops over time. Cited in Psychology Today 'The tell-tale signs of burnout - do you have them?', job burnout is literally a slow-burner. Emotional and professional dysfunction doesn't occur overnight - but the signs can be there early on.

Understanding pre-burnout is equally as critical as recognising burnout

In an article on the BBC website 'How to tell if you're close to burning out' it's interesting to note that contributors say employers should make the distinction between pre-burnout and burnout. Author of 'The Burnout Solution' and psychotherapist, Siobhan Murray says in the article that it's important to understand that the condition of burnout can be confused for depression - the method of treatment for both conditions is very different.

Very often, pre-burnout employees will talk of feelings of tiredness that aren't resolved by more sleep and rest, they will have an increased reliance on alcohol and also a dependence on sugary foods and drinks to help them get through the working day. They'll also talk of a lack of energy for undertaking exercise. (By offering remote working employees time during the day to take up an exercise routine - to encourage them to step away from their desk - employers could be exacerbating the situation.)

It's normal for all of us, during a hectic time at work to feel stress, anxiety (to some degree) and maybe sleep is difficult to come by leading up to a deadline. But if these feelings remain even once a target has been met or a project has been delivered, then employers need to be alert. The individual who 'can't let go' is the one to watch.

Burnout - the signs to look out for

In an ideal world, employers will have recognised the early indicators, will have sought advice from mental health experts, interventions made, and the individual moves forward with ongoing support. 

What if you suspect the individual in question is already in full burnout mode - what are the signs?

Broken down into physical/emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness, employers should look out for these behaviours and feelings:

Physical and emotional exhaustion

  1. Lack of energy - ranging from chronic fatigue to a dread of facing the day ahead.
  2. Insomnia - fitful sleep 2 or 3 times a week becomes a nightly ritual.
  3. Forgetfulness and a lack of focus becomes an inability to carry out tasks required for the role.
  4. Physical symptoms manifest themselves i.e. palpitations, chest pain, stomach pain and an increased vulnerability to coughs and colds.
  5. Loss of appetite which starts as skipping the odd meal to a significant loss of weight.
  6. Anxiety which turns from worry at early onset to having an impact on personal life.
  7. Depressive thoughts from feeling sad to feelings of utter hopelessness.
  8. Irritability becomes angry outbursts at home and with work colleagues.

Cynicism and detachment

  1. Demonstrated by a general loss of enjoyment - a lack of desire to actually be in the workplace (which can be shown by a rigid sticking to working hours).
  2. Negative self-talk becomes the norm, with feelings of pessimism and a lack of trust in work colleagues (and friends and family) being displayed frequently.
  3. Increasing self-isolation - avoidance of social interaction - going into work early or working late to avoid seeing colleagues.
  4. Detachment from work life and the world around them - calling in sick, avoiding responding to emails and phone calls and generally detaching oneself from the responsibilities required to get the job done.


  1. Voicing feelings of apathy and ineffectiveness - a 'what's the point' attitude.
  2. Irritability at both work and home with an additional frustration that they have lost the efficiency they once had.
  3. Despite working long hours, productivity is diminished and performance drops.

Writing in Psychology Today, Sherrie Bourg Carter, suggests the high achievers, those with a 'can do' attitude and who are initially passionate about their job are the employees to monitor. They may quietly take on a heavy workload and apply their own internal pressures to excel at their job.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) General Survey measures participants on these 3 ranges of behaviours and attitudes and can assess whether someone is pre-burnout or is heading to a burnout state quietly and steadily. There are a number of questionnaires that measure overall job satisfaction which could be useful indicators of burnout. The BMA can be accessed here.

Sending emails at 2am? Burnout's a possibility

Employers need to be aware of behavioural indicators which may suggest an employee is struggling with their work or meeting role expectations. We can suggest routes of support and recommend Employee Assistance Programmes, if you don't have one already in place. 

With more of your workforce potentially working under flexible working protocols it may be more difficult to keep tabs on each employee. Employers will need to look for social cues (including non-verbal behaviours) which may indicate an individual needs additional support - online 1-1 meetings should still enable you to assess your employee's level of engagement. 

Flexible working may not be the direct cause of burnout but could make the condition harder to identify.

Always seek expert help when you suspect a co-worker is struggling and get the right intervention in place to support them.

How can Q&A People Matter help you?

Do you need advice on setting up a flexible working policy?

Get in touch with us for our expert advice.


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