How COVID-19 has contributed to increased risk of burnout

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Friday, 6 November, 2020 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

There are conflicting tensions in many workplaces when it comes to employee wellbeing and workplace safety throughout COVID-19, according to Edith Cowan University.

For the most part, Australian organisations have excelled in navigating the challenges of 2020 from an employee wellbeing perspective; inclusive of the response to COVID19 as well as the bushfires earlier in the year, said Dr Ben Farr-Wharton, Associate Professor of Management in the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University.

“With vast amounts of organisations moving to an online-only platform during lockdown, there was an increased focus on employee health and safety, and particularly on mental health,” he said.

“Many organisations were generating new work health safety resources, policies and procedures for managers and staff, and these were informed by best practice – facilitated by helpful and timely advice from State and Federal Government bodies.”

Yet paradoxically, and as a result of the financial impact of COVID19, organisations are calling on employees to ‘do more with less’ for prolonged periods, said Dr Farr-Wharton, who was speaking ahead of the AIHS Perth Safety Symposium, which will be held on Friday 27 November 2020.

“Australians have a tradition of ‘giving back’ and ‘doing our fair share’, but there is a risk in expecting employees to work over and above what they are resourced to do for long periods of time.”

He said research has found that burnout is the most pressing risk for knowledge work who work in intense, yet austere environments.

However, given the prospect of lower employment security moving forward, Dr Farr-Wharton said the effects of this will likely include increases in workplaces accidents, stress, anxiety, depression, somatic symptoms and detrimental chronic health issues.

The sectors most likely to be affected include health, aged and community sector; professional, technical and business services; with related but different challenges facing employees in tourism, retail and hospitality sectors. 

“While moving our work online at the beginning of lockdown proved a pain point for many organisations, adaptation was quick and collectively; Australian organisations proved themselves agile and competent in embracing flexibility and remote work,” said Dr Farr-Wharton.

“As we re-emerge from our respective states’ lockdowns, organisations are asking themselves what is the best way forward with regards to remote and flexible work.”
At the same time, Dr Farr-Wharton said the employees who were working remotely bravely forged new ground in protecting and safeguarding their work-life balance.

“Indeed, many people with caring responsibilities worked with their employers to better structure their workflow so that they could, for example, tend to their children’s education or elder parent’s health, and meet required deadlines and online meeting requirements,” he said. “As our lockdowns lift, all stakeholders are looking for better flexibility and coordination of work, but there is a valid fear that the hard-won lessons from the lockdown will be forgotten, and work practices will revert to inflexible and traditional (9-5) structures.

“Within the health, aged and community sectors we’ve seen ongoing issues with equipment, resourcing and rostering; and the detrimental and broadscale impact of low pay and high turnover have been laid bare for all to see.”

As a nation, Dr Farr-Wharton said Australia needs to get better at resourcing its health, aged and community sectors; and at the same time, protections need to be put in place so that other sectors do not adopt the same hyper-lean resourcing and low wage entry structures associated with care industries.

“This is challenging, particularly as our whole economy is embracing the ‘future of work’, leading to higher levels of subcontracting, precarious and gig-based labour,” he said.

The other key learning for more traditional (and often professional services and public sector) organisations is to put (and keep) in place practical measures to safeguard employees from overwork, burnout and stress.

“Our productivity gains will come from ‘working smarter’, not from ‘working more’, and this will continue to be the case as organisations further embrace artificial intelligence, roboticisation, increases in contract workers etc,” said Dr Farr-Wharton.

As the economy moves from being a knowledge economy to a smart economy, the focus on the mental health of employees must also increase – and, particularly on the role of organisations and work in either improving or worsening mental health.

“OHS professionals are key stakeholders in advocating for safer work structures; including in identifying and mitigating overwork, stress and unreasonable demands,” said Dr Farr-Wharton.


Dr Farr-Wharton will be speaking as the AIHS Perth Safety Symposium, which will be held on Friday 27 November 2020 from 9.00am to 5.00pm at ECU Mount Lawley Campus. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.