By Sarah Hall
An employee who just can’t get to work on time. A once diligent colleague who keeps making errors. A worker who seems more irritable than usual.
All three examples are signs of an individual who might be struggling with their mental health. Workplace burnout is one possible culprit. But, as rates of clinical mental health issues grow, anxiety and depression could be the trigger, too. And while either one may prompt similar symptoms, employers must be mindful of both — and how they can help.
Workplace Burnout vs. Clinical Anxiety
In today’s working world, it’s difficult to avoid strains on our well-being. Nearly 60% of employees reported feeling stressed at work every day, according to a 2023 Gartner report. But what employees do with that stress — or how they react to it — can determine whether they’re burned out or suffering from something more serious. Here’s how to tell the difference between workplace burnout and a mental health disorder.
What Is Workplace Burnout?
As the World Health Organization defines it, workplace burnout is a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
It’s not classified as a medical condition, the agency reports. But it can lead to feelings of negativism or cynicism about the job, exhaustion and reduced professional efficacy.
If left untreated, burnout can lead to depression, research demonstrates. But the good news is that workers can address burnout with self-care, including exercise, seeking connection with others and setting boundaries to minimize job stress exposures, the Harvard Business Journal recommends.
What Is Clinical Anxiety?
As the National Institute of Mental Health defines it, clinical anxiety (or generalized anxiety disorder) involves the “persistent feeling of anxiety or dread, which can interfere with daily life.”
As the definition notes, people with this disorder aren’t worried or anxious just some of the time, rather, their mental health issues can last for years. Symptoms include exhaustion and sleep problems; trouble concentrating; unexplained pain; and difficulty controlling feelings of worry.
Research shows that a number of things trigger anxiety disorders, including genetics and environmental stressors such as childhood trauma. While removing or taking a break from job stressors may resolve workplace burnout, clinical anxiety and depression may require years of therapy and medication.
What Employers Can Do
Both burnout and mental health disorders can impact a workplace, leading to lower productivity, more absenteeism and less engagement, according to a 2022 McKinsey & Company report. The consulting firms’ research — specifically, four in five human resources leaders surveyed — said their workforce’s well-being is a top priority for their organization.
It’s not up to employers to diagnose their employees, of course. But they should take steps to address the needs of their workforce. Here are three things employers can do to support workers struggling with workplace burnout or anxiety disorders.
1. Offer Robust Mental Health Benefits
Today’s workers are seeking out employers with strong mental health benefits. In fact, according to a 2022 American Psychological Association survey, 81% of workers surveyed said the way employers support mental health will be an important consideration for them in future job searches.
Employers can pick from a menu of options to boost their mental health benefits. Employee Assistance Programs and access to online therapy apps can provide quick help to both burned out and anxious employees.
The American Psychological Association also recommends taking a hard look at existing medical insurance benefits to ensure they don’t introduce roadblocks to workers seeking mental health care amid a national mental health provider shortage.
If your plan doesn’t already include out-of-network mental health benefits, consider updating it so it does, the association recommends. This gives employees access to a broader range of providers.
2. Consider Your Culture
If your workers are experiencing elevated rates of burnout — based on engagement survey results or one-on-one feedback to their managers — it’s time to assess what role your culture is playing in those numbers. Is it too hard-charging? Do your employees have any say in how they spend their working days?
To better support your workers, give your employees agency. According to a Gallup survey, 43% of employees are less likely to experience high levels of burnout when they have some control over how they spend their work days, including what tasks they’ll complete and when.
Flexibility is key, too. According to the 2022 American Psychological Association survey, here’s what employees said would support their mental health:
- 41% of respondents said flexible work hour,
- 34% said a workplace culture that respects time off,
- 33% said the ability to work remotely, and
- 31% said a four-day work week.
Finally, to combat burnout, ensure great work is rewarded and employees feel valued and respected. Gallup found employees are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout when they strongly agree that they experience bias, favoritism and other unfair treatment at work.
3. Be Mindful of Workplace Regulations
Employees have workplace rights when they suffer from mental illnesses that limit one or more major life activities, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and other workplace regulations.
To qualifying workers, employers must provide reasonable accommodations, which might include the ability to work from home, attend meetings remotely or take a leave of absence, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. If you haven’t already, now is the time to ensure your organization has the right processes in place to assist workers in need.
Supporting your workers’ well-being is the right thing to do, of course, but the impact extends far beyond a hand out. As rates of mental illness grow, providing these supports is a critical part of being responsive to today’s workplace needs. It also ensures your employees have what they need to positively contribute and, ultimately, drive your organization’s success.