The success of remote working during the pandemic has led to many businesses adopting a hybrid approach. While this provides benefits in flexibility, balancing the demands of home-working and office working is proving stressful for individuals.
This comes as a time when the accounting industry is already facing a mental health crisis, with just 2% of employees unaffected by stress, according to a pre-pandemic study by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development. When you add the extra psychological load imposed by hybrid-working expectations, employees are at greater risk of burning out.
What is hybrid burnout?
Returning to on-site work while continuing to work remotely are both uniquely stressful activities. Office-based work often requires a commute that may seem more exhausting than ever, while the social stresses of a busy workplace may feel more emphatic than they used to. Meanwhile remote working can encourage an unhealthy ‘always-on’ culture.
Juggling both forms of work is leaving many with a ‘hybrid headache’: they endure the stresses of both approaches and the disrupted routines of splitting time between the office and home. But where chronic workplace stress is not successfully managed, the risk of burnout rises sharply.
An absence of healthy hybrid habits can lead to a heightened stress state, impacting physical and mental wellbeing. An inability to switch off from ‘fight or flight’ mode leads to both physical and mental ill health, including anxiety and depression.
Unhelpful cycles can then develop. Ill health negatively impacts work performance and productivity, leading to further stress and often overworking. This can drive unhelpful behaviour such as leavism (taking leave to catch up on a backlog of work) and presenteeism (at work for long hours but not productive), adding fuel to the fire and preventing individuals from making positive changes.
Without the right support and guidance from employers, individuals may get trapped in spirals of negative thoughts and unhelpful actions that worsen health, leading to negative outcomes for the individual and the business.
Spotting the signs
Burnt-out employees are often reluctant to talk to someone. In addition to the perceived stigma around mental health, employees fear the career consequences of admitting to experiencing work stress.
In the professional accounting sector, a combination of competition for roles, tight deadlines and high work volumes is widely cited as causing high levels of staff turnover, stress and burnout. Employees often remain silent, fearing replacement by new talent if they’re seen as not coping with the demands of the job.
To nurture a healthy and productive workforce, managers need to recognise the signs of burnout in others – as well as themselves – and feel confident talking about it, approaching others and offering support.
Burnout isn’t just stress. Stress is common in the workplace and isn’t always unhealthy. In short bursts, stress helps us concentrate and perform under pressure – pressing the accelerator when needed. However, long-term stress leads to burnout – similar to the damage and reduced performance caused by continually over-revving an engine.
Changes in performance include a measurable decline in standards of work, and changes in behaviour and mood, such as withdrawal, irritability, chronic tiredness, poor sleep, pessimism, hopelessness and an inability to concentrate.
The right support
Employers noticing these symptoms in colleagues should feel comfortable supporting them. Support ranges from simply asking ‘how are you feeling today?’ or ‘is there anything I can do to help?’ to signposting them towards more formal support.
At Nuffield Health, we’ve delivered emotional literacy training to all staff, equipping them with skills to hold conversations confidently around mental health. This has created a culture where conversations about mental health are welcome and expected. Not only are individuals capable of supporting others, but they are more likely to seek support for themselves at the earliest signs of distress – before they become burnt out.
Business leaders looking to support their team in the hybrid-working world need to understand the stresses posed and help to alleviate them.
For example, remote working can cause ‘working from home guilt’, with employees increasing their working hours to compensate for the benefit of home-working. Employers should outline remote-working expectations clearly to ease these worries. Let individuals know they aren’t expected to work longer hours just because they’re not commuting.
Similarly, accountancy practice clients have been reported to have become more demanding during the pandemic, with employees feeling the need to be ‘always-on’. Let staff know they shouldn’t feel pressured to reply to emails outside of their working day and encourage them to add their contactable hours to their emails so clients know when they can expect a reply.
Embracing a routine can reduce unhelpful thinking patterns, too. Flexibility is one of the benefits of a hybrid working approach but this doesn’t have to mean inconsistent working. Nominating ‘office days’ helps employees manage their expectations for the week ahead, while still providing the benefits associated with a more flexible approach.
Employers should also signpost individuals towards the emotional wellbeing support available to them. This may include employee assistance programmes or cognitive behaviour therapy sessions, which give individuals direct access to a specialist who can help them understand and break unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviour, and enhance the ability to cope in new and uncertain situations.
Author: Brendan Street is professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health
More information: ACCA’s wellbeing hub offers a range of resources for you to explore to help enhance your wellbeing throughout your professional journey.
This article was first published in Student Accountant in September 2021