“Work-life balance” is likely one of the most frequently used terms in professional spheres, yet it continues to be an elusive reality for many. Since March 2020, when the world went into lockdown mode, most of us have been on a rollercoaster of different work arrangements, trying to keep our jobs as well as our sanity. As arrangements shifted from WFH to hybrid to WFO, many of us fell into a state of despair with frequent changes that felt like being in the eye of a storm.
Even as the pandemic urged conversations around mental health, there remains a taboo attached to the subject. The onus is not so much on employees as it is on employers. Despite vows of increased cognisance of the mental health impact of long work hours which has been proven to be negative long before the pandemic, the promise of ensuring workers’ mental wellness at a majority of workplaces remains just that: a promise. Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index found that 54 percent of employees feel overworked and 39 percent feel exhausted. The latest trend report stated that 24 percent of employees quit their jobs in 2021 for personal well-being and better work-life balance, likely an outcome of exhaustion in the workplace.
For Angèlique Raina, founder of a brand consultancy agency, it was exhaustion, if not worse, at her previous workplace. “The more I talked outside of the organisation about the work culture, the more clearly I could see what I can now label as ‘favouritism,’ ‘temper tantrums,’ ‘manipulation tactics,’ ‘exhausting one-on-ones,’ and ‘24-hour availability.’ If I didn’t respond to a WhatsApp text within an hour, it would be considered negligent. I developed anxiety that was praised for ‘always being alert and observant and accountable’.”
A fleeting question by a former employee – “Why do you feel this is the only way of working?” – stuck with Raina and was one of the things that led her to taking a 21-day break, which, she said, was meant to realise one isn’t just the sum of their clients or output. “It gave me so much more energy to be better.” Raina now takes 54 days off from her consultancy, every year, and goes on a four-day trip every 30 days.
What Raina may have been going through at the time is burnout, “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” as per the ICD-11, the eleventh revision of the international categorisation system for physical and mental illnesses published by the World Health Organization.
The 2019 document further clarifies that burnout is an occupational phenomenon and not a medical condition. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the most commonly used tool for measuring burnout, takes three dimensions of burnout into consideration: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and personal accomplishment. In her 2019 viral Buzzfeed article, writer and journalist Anne Helen Petersen explained: “Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.”
LinkedIn’s “Future of Work” study, published in 2021, reported that one of three professionals in India feel burnt out due to increased workload and stress. This ties in with the work culture in several Asian countries, where long working hours are often the norm.
Mumbai-based psychiatrist Syeda Ruksheda attributed this to the urgency and hustle culture in work environments that have pushed many deep into burnout. “Our current work culture makes us feel that we have to bring our 100 percent to work, and that everything else is secondary. That makes our body susceptible to unprecedented levels of stress. When that balance goes off, it makes us less effective and content at work, as well as at home.”
Okay, but, how bad can it really be? We asked mental health professionals about identifiable signs to know that the alarm has gone off, and that what you may be experiencing is in fact burnout.
Taking short breaks doesn’t seem to help.
“If taking a small break for a few hours or a day, connecting with friends, and eating good food helps, then we are likely talking about tiredness,” pointed out SnehaJanaki, a Mumbai-based counselling psychologist. “When you are tired, there is some decrease in functionality, but when you are burnt out, it also shakes your sense of purpose and identity, perhaps both personal and professional.” Burnout also leads to more prolonged disinterest and detachment, and causes exhaustion that is both mental and physical. There is also an inability to transition from work to personal life as it may be difficult to switch off.
You are frequently in flight-or-fight mode.
When talking of burnout, people often tend to limit its impact to mental health. Burnout or mental-health struggles in general, are not just about how one is feeling, but also how one’s brain is functioning and how that will likely affect the body due to chronic and long-term stress.
“When the body is stressed, the SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System) contributes to what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat, or fleeing from an enemy”, according to an article published on the APA (American Psychological Association) website. While the response helps in fighting off a perceived threat at hand, exposure to prolonged stress can cause long-term drain out. The continuous activation of the nervous system due to stress negatively impacts other bodily systems, causing wear-and-tear on the body.
“Even if you’re lying to yourself to do just a little more, your body knows that you are betraying it,” said Ruksheda. She listed weakness, fatigue and exhaustion, despite sleeping for long hours every day, as common signs of burnout. If you are experiencing a variation in your sleep timings, changes in appetite and weight, having headaches, stomach aches, back spasms, tremors, and acidity related issues despite your physical tests being fine, you might want to take a pause to figure out if it is burnout that is causing these, she added.
You struggle with making balanced decisions.
While going through or edging towards burnout, chances are that positive thoughts and motivation will be in short supply. One may be negative and pessimistic about things most of the time, and also misinterpret social cues. Ruksheda pointed out that burnout makes itself known through a crack in cognitive abilities – when a person keeps forgetting things, is unable to focus, and their problem-solving and decision-making skills decrease. You may notice that you’re unable to be present, are always anticipating what might go wrong, and are more irritable, angry, or anxious than usual.
You have trouble falling asleep every night.
Studies have linked burnout with other common mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. There is a high positive correlation between depression and burnout, even though it is unclear which one leads to the other. Insomnia, which is a sleep disorder that often accompanies mental illness, is also considered a symptom of burnout. A study published in 2020 on health-care providers in Italy, who were facing burnout during the first wave of the pandemic, found that 55 percent complained of having difficulty falling asleep, while 40 percent said they had nightmares.
You need to take the day (or longer) off because you’re mentally exhausted.
Ruksheda doesn’t believe in work-life balance, and said that it should simply be “life balance”, because work is part of life. As an employer, she insists her employees take mental health leaves, even if for “selfish” reasons. “[As a boss] I am going to see that my work gets done better, and for that, I need my employees to be in better health.”
So does Priyal Agrawal, founder of StandWeSpeak, an organisation focused on sex and reproductive health education for women and the LGBTQ+ community. “The output and productivity of the team are impacted when a teammate is stressed, exhausted, or dealing with burnout. Often, employers don’t recognise that there is a difference between pressure, which can serve as motivation, and stress, which can happen when pressure reaches an unhealthy level,” she said.
In India, the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 highlights employee rights, forbids discrimination, and requires all insurance providers to include coverage for the management of conditions related to mental health. However, very little is done in actuality to maintain healthy working environments for employees, as recognising mental health as a justified reason for taking a break and focusing on oneself is still viewed as a luxury and not a necessity.
Despite the widespread cultural coverage of burnout, the conversation on mental health remains one that many are hesitant to broach at work, often citing physical ailments as excuses to take a day off when it is overwhelming fatigue and exhaustion that they are experiencing. However, given that burnout largely stems from job and workplace-related issues, it is all the more important to normalise such conversations, without attributing it to incompetence, a lackadaisical approach towards work, failure, or laziness.
Raina said that after she decided to take a much-needed mental health break from work, she came back to “numerous wild and baseless accusations, like someone who has drifted too far and needed to be reeled back in to kneel.”
In such a scenario, how can you broach the topic safely with your HR/ boss? We asked experts for their inputs, and here’s what they suggested:
Make sure you closely read the company-leave policy.
Atri Paul, an HR professional, said that since most companies have specific policies with regards to mental health and wellness breaks, it is crucial to check the clauses that cover the same. “Before joining, employees should get a clear understanding of these guidelines, how many days off they can avail of and if that will affect the number of leaves offered to them every month,” she said. “They should also clarify how many of those leaves are paid.”
Learn the process for taking a long mental health break.
If someone needs to avail of a mental health break spanning a month or two, they should approach the HR requesting the same. While the process differs from company to company, most multinational companies as well as large national ones will typically direct employees to in-house or partner mental health professionals for an initial diagnosis. The mental health professional will then advise the employee as well as the company’s HR on the way forward.
Find out if the company provides a “safe space” to express mental health concerns.
Umair Shah, co-founder of creative agency Noon Social, said employers should work on making their workplace a safe space to talk about mental health without judgement or shame. “It’s important to convey it like any other reason for a break. Employees should be able to feel free to seek support from their superiors and to discuss matters that are of concern to them. Guidelines may vary from company to company, but trusting the employee is of key importance, and not asking for detailed explanations or proof.”
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.
It’s important that you reach out to people that you feel safe with and can explain your situation better. “Be frank and honest, and don’t be afraid of coming across as vulnerable,” said Agrawal. She also suggested preparing a list of things that you would like to mention in the discussion and what you require to be more efficient in the workplace. This can include regular treatment sessions, more frequent check-ins, and stipulated periods of time to concentrate on work. “Mental health is not something to be ashamed about.”
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