Personal issues impacting the workplace
Allen & Overy, Warsaw, Poland
Separating personal life from work life can be very difficult: this is why many employees bring their personal problems to work, which in turn has an impact on the workplace environment as a whole. In practice, this could lead to complex consequences for the employee and the employer, such as distractions that could potentially cause accidents at work, poor performance or productivity, not to mention stress and its health repercussions. This issue is currently a problem for Human Resource departments, who have to consider what particular strategies to adopt in order to deal with this issue.
Personal issues: what are they?
In practice, personal issues can be defined as any personal problem that affects a certain individual. Typical personal issues could relate, among others, to family, finance, addiction, disability or health. There are a variety of personal issues that can affect the workplace and also various methods that employers can implement to limit their consequences.
Today, personal issues related to mental health and well being in the workplace, in particular burnout, are very common.
Burnout is not yet considered a medical condition. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised the severity of the problem and included it in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as an occupational phenomenon; the 11th Revision is to be published in 2022. ICD defines burnout:
‘as a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.’
One may ask what the difference is between burnout and depression. Do we need to differentiate between these kinds of conditions? Such differentiation is important and justified. According to the prevailing view, burnout is a specific kind of occupational stress, resulting from demanding and emotionally charged relationships at the workplace. Depression, however, can result from any negative life events and traumas. While these two conditions are not identical, they are obviously related.
The WHO does not classify burnout as an illness, but one cannot exclude the possibility that, in the foreseeable future, burnout could be considered to be an occupational illness. If this happens, it could also be a problem for employers and social security systems, because it is possible that burnout could be used as a pretext for employees to abuse their rights, for example, by taking unjustified sick leave.
In any case, the recent position of the WHO indicates that burnout has become a new and important risk for employers.
Burnout has plenty of implications for the workplace. Briefly, these implications may be divided into two groups, depending on whether they directly affect employees or the employer. For employees, burnout may lead to, among others symptoms, mental or physical exhaustion; sleep deprivation; loss of purpose or motivation; and detachment from co-workers and the employment environment. Employers may be directly affected by increased absenteeism, a decrease in employees’ performance quality and inefficiency.
The statistics on burnout are also interesting. According to a recent Gallup study (involving 7,500 full-time employees), 23 per cent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 per cent reported feeling burned out sometimes. This trend is confirmed by other studies and research. For instance, 84 per cent of millennials say they have experienced burnout at their current job, compared to 77 per cent of all respondents. Nearly half of millennials say they have left a job specifically because they felt burned out, compared to 42 per cent of all respondents. In terms of money, it is estimated that burnout is responsible for losses of anywhere from US$150bn to $350bn annually for United States businesses.
In Europe, the situation is not much different from that in the US. According to Burnout in the workplace: A review of data and policy responses in the EU, the problem of sick leave and absenteeism due to burnout can be seen all over Europe, or at least where any studies have been conducted. For instance, in Austria (May 2017), according to the Arbeitsklima Index, six per cent of employees have been on sick leave due to burnout. According to the Danish PUMA study, conducted 1999-2005, the average sickness absences was 13.9 days and six days per year respectively, among participants in the highest and lowest work burnout quartiles. In Poland, the burnout issue is gaining more and more attention. It appears that one in four Polish employees is affected by burnout. In particular, this concerns medical professionals, because 60 per cent of medical doctors and nurses claim that they suffer from burnout due to stress at work, among other reasons.
Risks for employers
Aside from absenteeism and inefficiency, there are additional risks for employers linked to burnout. While burnout is not yet recognised as a medical illness by the WHO, it could be linked to health and safety conditions. In practice, this means that an employee who has suffered from burnout due to stress at work could claim that this was because the employer failed to provide proper health and safety conditions in the workplace. Depending on the jurisdiction, the obligation to provide proper health and safety conditions could arise from a different legal basis, such as from statutory provisions, or the contractual relations between the parties. In any case, this could be a litigation challenge for either the employee or the employer. Due to the nature of burnout, it can be assumed that it would be very challenging for employees to prove their claim and evidence that they experienced burnout and that this was related to stress at work. Additionally, in many jurisdictions, employees must also prove that this condition led to a loss, which could be a challenge for them. In any case, damages claims for burnout appear to be quite difficult to achieve, in particular because the burden of proof is generally on the claimant (here, the employee).
Additionally, as these cases could involve a breach of health and safety rules in the workplace, the employer’s (criminal) regulatory liability could also be taken into account.
How to prevent burnout
There are various ways to mitigate the risk of burnout in the workplace.
It is essential to create an atmosphere of openness and support in the workplace and to encourage employees to share their problems with their employer, before they become much more serious. In order to do so, some companies have introduced well-being and wellness programmes at the workplace. Their aim is to promote well being for all staff, deal with the causes of work-related mental health problems and support employees who experience them. These programmes should be tailored for each particular type of business and may include training on mental health issues to increase awareness of the problem among employees and managers. The latter group is quite important, because they are very close to the employees and can identify potential issues. To this effect, employers could organise a meeting with managers or provide them with information on mental health through internal work streams, open communication, or other methods that can foster awareness among managers. Promoting a culture of openness could be a reliable solution, as well as promoting a work-life balance. This could be done by monitoring the workload of a given employee and managing how tasks are distributed among employees. Employees should also be encouraged to disconnect from work when they are on holiday, or taking time off.
It is equally important to involve employees in such programmes. Mental health can be a very personal issue and this is why employees may not feel comfortable speaking about it. Employers may conduct surveys to identify the biggest issues at the workplace and involve employees to find a solution to such problems. This could be done by involving employee representatives (eg, trade unions or works council).
Finally, the best method of prevention is establishing a low-stress workplace environment by refining communication with employees, so as to avoid multitasking and disorganisation at work.
 Arnold B Bakker, Wilmar B Schaufeli,Evangelia Demerouti, Peter P.M. Janssen,Renée Van Der Hulst & Janneke Brouwer (2000) ’Using the equity theory to examine the difference between burnout and depression’, Anxiety Stress & Coping.