Dr John Perry started getting calls from companies in late 2020 asking him to do webinars or Zoom workshops with staff, for whom remote working was taking its toll.
The requests, mainly from overseas companies, continued throughout 2021, to such an extent that the sports psychologist, who has co-authored a book on developing mental toughness, started to feel a twinge of guilt about “taking away a lunchtime” from people who were already under enough pressure.
The University of Limerick lecturer in sport and exercise psychology says there is a lot of peer-reviewed research suggesting a link between the pandemic and a rise in “burnout” in many sectors. But in his view, burnout is caused by “the interaction between the situation and the individual”, and he thinks too many employers focus on the individual.
“I can change the situation in a matter of weeks but to develop the wellbeing of the individual could take years,” he says. “So a lunchtime webinar without ongoing coaching and support doesn’t achieve much. And employees got weary of these webinars.”
In recent times there has been more focusing of minds on the phenomenon known as “the great resignation”.
People are reassessing their lives for different reasons but across a number of sectors research shows evidence of burnout. Earlier this week an internal HSE document revealed the ambulance service is being confronted by a “great resignation” and post-pandemic burnout among healthcare workers, threatening response times for patients in coming years.
A survey conducted by the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) earlier this year found four out of five junior doctors said they were at risk of burnout with large numbers reporting mental health issues as a result of poor working conditions.
And a study by researchers at UCD published last January, measuring the occupational stress of teachers in Ireland, found 82 per cent reported moderate or high levels of personal burnout during the pandemic. Most (79 per cent) reported work burnout following sporadic school closures and a shift to online learning.
As employers grapple with the implications of all this, Perry says some companies are resorting to “well-meaning” interventions but are making staff feel the onus is on them to change.
The psychologist says it is important to remember that about 50-60 per cent of mental toughness is genetic, and employers should realise that the people who are naturally sensitive may also be very valuable employees.
“I love sport but I think a lot of sports and the performing arts are set up to select the tough, rather than recognising that some people are more sensitive and, therefore, more likely to burn out. But they might also be really talented,” he says.
And some people are not as tough as they think, he adds, including some bosses, who until remote working became the norm, were able to hide behind talented teams and who then fell apart when that buffer was gone.
Adam Coleman, chief executive at HRLocker, agrees with Perry that organisations must focus more on how they can respond as remote or hybrid working results in many workers feeling on call 24 hours a day.
HRLocker, a Co Clare-based HR software solutions provider, did a survey last year which found 52 per cent of full-time workers in Ireland were experiencing burnout.
The highest level (58 per cent) was experienced by those aged 18-24, followed by 35-40 year olds (57 per cent), 57-66 year olds (52 per cent) and those aged 41-56 (39 per cent).
“The distinction between work time and personal time has become increasingly blurred as a result of hybrid working,” says Coleman. “Our research suggests the sense of pressure to always be ‘on’ is a ticking time bomb for employee wellbeing and burnout,” he says.
He says organisations must take effective measures to support their employees and that introducing a flexible working policy is not enough. “The best employers are introducing processes to monitor workload, mandating downtime and lunch breaks, putting employee support structures in place and establishing a constructive, two-way dialogue with their teams, leveraging technology to empower their people and reduce admin.”
The HRLocker survey found charity and healthcare workers were reporting the highest stress levels, something which wouldn’t surprise Dr Denis McCauley, chairman of the IMO’s GP committee.
While the “great resignation” is a talking point, McCauley says that so over-burdened are many GPs, especially in small towns and villages, that many can’t retire out of loyalty to patients who might otherwise find themselves with no family doctor. As a result some are working well into their 70s and in rare cases beyond 80, he believes.
However, Covid-19 and the increased workload did hasten the retirement of some colleagues who had been thinking of quitting in a few years’ time, “but when the vaccines came in, they said I cannot continue with this”.
Vaccine programmes and the risk of infection may have focused the minds of GPs who felt vulnerable but, according to McCauley, there is no sense now that the pressure is off.
The GPs’ spokesman says that long before Covid, Fempi (Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act) cuts, sparked by the recession, had left many family doctors unable to take on the extra pair of hands needed to deal with their workload.
“Then Covid came along and there was an increased workload and a decreased ability to pass that on to secondary services,” he says.
With a lot of sickness “suspended” throughout the pandemic when patients were either afraid to or discouraged from visiting their GP surgeries, he says the post-Covid catching up is another burden on GPs. The capacity in general practice to meet the demand is finite for a number of reasons, he says, and one is the huge proportion of younger GPs who are leaving the country.
“Then there is the ticking time bomb – 20 per cent of general practitioners are due to retire in the next four-five years, me being one of them.”
Non-consultant hospital doctors (NCHDs) are also demoralised, frustrated and exhausted, according to Dr Lorcán Ó Maoileannaigh, of the IMO’s NCHD committee who says one of the reasons over 97 per cent of them voted for industrial action last June is that their rosters are not sustainable.
With many of his peers working in Australia and New Zealand, the NUI Galway medical graduate says that unlike previous generations of “junior doctors” who garnered valuable experience abroad for a few years before returning home, many of these are choosing to specialise in their adopted countries.
The tradition of six-month rotations for NCHDs, who as part of their trainings switch hospitals every January and July, is adding to the stress for those who must find accommodation if transferred to another part of the country, says Ó Maoileannaigh.
With the age profile of graduates changing, he says many are now in their late 20s and early 30s and could find themselves for example “having to rent in Galway and leave the family in Dublin”.
For those whose rosters demand that they work seven nights in a row, the better work/life balance in places like Australia is increasingly attractive, he says. “People doing crazy shifts are saying this is not for me, whether it is not seeing their kids or missing family occasions like weddings and funerals. I think they were happy to give up their lives during Covid and go that extra mile but now people are starting to say ‘enough’.”
Dr John Perry says two factors associated with remote working – isolation and always being “on” – have had a big impact.
“I think sometimes we underestimate how important those social supports [in the workplace] are – those rants by the water cooler or the coffee machine,” he says. “Zoom is not the same at all.”
For those wondering if they are just having a few bad days or in fact experiencing burnout, he says the classic symptoms from an emotional point of view are irritability, lack of motivation and not being able to find enjoyment in things you typically enjoy. Physical traits include poor sleep and raised heart rate, while from a behavioural point of view, telltale signs are letting self-care drop, and not staying on top of things around the house.
Perry believes not everyone who is resigning is feeling overwhelmed and burnt out.
“There certainly is a ‘great resignation’ but we don’t know if people are throwing in the towel because they are burnt out or because they are proactively taking charge. The truth is it’s probably a mix of both. There are positive resignations and negative ones.
In some cases it is a sign of good mental health literacy. Some people are saying ‘I’m going to get ahead of this and take control.’
I wouldn’t want to assume it is a negative thing, definitely not in all cases.”