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The NZ Workforce: Burnt Out Or Just Smouldering?

Hands up if you feel exhausted before your workday has even begun.

If you can barely summon the strength to wave, chances are, you're burnt out – an occupational phenomenon officially recognised in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

New AUT research shows that, compared to international employees, Kiwi workers are at risk of becoming burnt out.

So, how do you know if you’re an employee who’s burnt out?

AUT Business School Professor Jarrod Haar, who conducted the 2020 study, says there are four key signs to watch for: emotional exhaustion, feelings of indifference to work, trouble staying focused and a lack of emotional control. While most employees feel tired or “burned out” at times, those who scored highly across all four factors are considered burnt out – when it comes to their jobs, they've got nothing left to give.

To identify and understand Kiwi workers’ experiences with being burnt out, Professor Haar surveyed 1000 New Zealand employees (54% female). The study ran after New Zealand’s first lockdown (March-May). Overall, 11% of the cohort could be classified as burnt out.

Burnt-out workers were significantly more likely to report higher anxiety, depression, and psychological syndromes (e.g., sleep issues) and psychosomatic syndromes (e.g., stomach cramps) than the rest of the study sample.

Burnt-out employees were also significantly more miserable than other participants in the study: the average happiness level of the burnt-out group was 48% compared to 68% of all others.

The study found that:

workers in larger-sized firms (51+ employees) were 153% more likely to be burnt out

workers who are managers were 219% more likely to be burnt out

younger workers (aged 29 years and less) were 206% more likely to be burnt out

essential workers were 152% more likely to be burnt out.

Perhaps surprisingly, says Professor Haar, the state of being burnt out was not significantly influenced by gender, marital or parental status, by the nature of the organisation (private, public or non-profit), or whether employees worked from home.

By comparison (although studied pre-COVID, in 2019], levels of burnt-out employees in Belgium and the Netherlands were 8% and 5%, respectively.

Professor Haar says the discrepancies highlight the impact of the pandemic on employees and underscore the need for organisations to take extra care of their workers. For example, he found that the worst group of firms were 306% more likely than the best group of firms to have burnt-out employees.

Overall, says Professor Haar, NZ firms are “fairly good” at providing policies, practices and procedures to help protect their employees’ psychological health and safety. But he cautions more needs to be done – and it must be a systematic approach.

“Senior management plays an important role in the mental health of workers – but participation and consultation in occupational health involves everyone – management, employees, unions, health and safety representatives. Stress prevention and management needs to be a focus across all layers of an organisation,” says Professor Haar.

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