Wellbeing and burnout

Managing workloads while people are working from multiple locations and in situations where interactions are less frequent and more formalised is a huge challenge for leaders, managers and HR teams – and one that requires a different skillset than they may have used in a traditional environment.

UNISON National Executive Council member John Gray says he has seen cases of workers “doing piles of stuff late at night, early starts, including weekends”, and warns managers to keep an eye out for signs of burnout.

“I would hope that employers do have the emotional intelligence to realise this is bad for the organisation. And when we do get people that are burnt out, they do tend to be people whose workloads have been horrendous. I’ve come across some really good managers, who will actually, in a professional, supportive way, push back on people who send them stuff at 10 o’clock on a Saturday evening.”

Gray adds that this requires leadership rather than just management from those at the top of organisations. “Some managers, you can give them all the mentoring, all the training and support, but they haven't got the ability to lead people. So I think that the pandemic has exposed weaknesses. And this particular new way of working, which is going to continue in part, requires I think some special skills.”

Time to trust

Ajman Ali at Hackney Council suggests that these new skills might involve managers moving away from the idea of being ‘watchdogs’ over their staff, and instead learn to trust that they are doing the job.

He says: “From a management perspective, managers perhaps might have been previously not as supportive, or perhaps there might have been issues of trust with people working remotely. That has ebbed away as it has been seen that people can work quite productively in their home environment.”

The twin problems of burnout and wellbeing are not exclusively problems for those working from home. Hackney’s experience as an employer demonstrates the danger of focusing on those workers. As Ali explains, the new paradigm can create a two-tier system – especially for any employer that has large numbers of frontline workers.

“I’ve come across some really good managers, who will actually, in a professional, supportive way, push back on people who send them stuff at 10 o’clock on a Saturday evening.”

“What we did discover also is that while we were focusing as an organisation on the wellbeing of people working from home, we were very keen to not lose sight of the fact that there was a large proportion of our staff who were still having to come to work, using public transport, etc. They would have been quite apprehensive about that and we had to make sure that we didn’t forget about their anxieties.”

Ali adds: “We were able to respond as an organisation, not only to the issues raised by people who might be working from home, but also other frontline staff who physically didn’t have that choice. And it was really important to try and minimise that divide between them and us: the managers and the frontline staff.”

Employee engagement

Hackney Council has made sure it is engaging actively with its 4,600 employees on a regular basis ever since lockdown began in spring 2020. It has held virtual leadership meetings with up to 900 people logged on at a time, in which questions can be asked of senior leaders, while leaders have also carried out a constant dialogue with union representatives.

Francesca Okosi, director of people and organisational effectiveness at The Nursing and Midwifery Council, agrees that looking for signs that people are struggling has become a vital new skill for anyone working in HR.

“It has really been tough, and in some respects has had to make us rethink how we support the organisation, how we support leaders, and how we support our colleagues at work,” she says. “We are going into people's homes in a space where some people may not be comfortable; people who are living in homes where there’s a number of them in the room. So we’ve had to think about not just the kind of physical things you give people, but also the way in which people are engaged and communicated with.”

Okosi adds: “You have to find a different way as HR professionals to help the organisation, to find a different way of creating those spontaneous conversations and those abilities to try and understand what’s going on with a person. But it’s not the same. You have to manufacture the kinds of informal ‘let’s have a coffee’ sessions that would just happen in a physical office space. You’ve got to increase the amount of communication with your team members.

“I think we kind of went into the pandemic, thinking ‘you’re working from home, everything’s okay, you’ve got the equipment, you should be able to get on with it.’ And there are a number of people who that has actually broken, and a number of people who’ve really come out the other side of it not in a good way and it’s going to take some time for them to recover.”

The role of kindness

What this shows is that some of the new skills that HR professionals and leaders will revolve around sensitivity to individual circumstances, and how to adapt policy accordingly.

Kindness will also play a role. Indeed, Okosi sees a positive from some aspects of how organisational development and HR professionals have responded to the crisis by increasing engagement with their teams. She says that at her last organisation, which she left during the first lockdown in 2020, “people actually said that they felt far better communicated with during the pandemic than they did pre the pandemic”.

But if those conversations are getting better and employers are on the lookout for warning signs around burnout and overwork, what might that mean on the other side of the ledger for productivity?


John Gray

National Executive Council member, UNISON (speaking in a personal capacity)

Ajman Ali

Group Director for Neighbourhood and Housing, Hackney Council

Francesca Okosi Director of People and Organisational Effectiveness, The Nursing and Midwifery Council