I always think of burn-out as looking like Don McCullin’s famous Vietnam War shot of a shell-shocked Marine, a man who has looked over the edge into Hell and will never be entirely whole again.  Do you recognise that 1,000 yard stare in any of your employees?  Or any of the other signs that your staff may be “running on empty” identified by an interesting and only partly self-serving survey published this week by Robert Half, “the world’s first and largest specialised recruitment consultancy”, it says here.

Those signs include poorer timekeeping, attendance and productivity, an increased number of arguments with managers and colleagues, a sense of disconnection from work, negativity and emotional outbursts.  If the survey is right, some 30% of UK HR directors say that employee burn-out is common in their organisation, rising to 35% in London and the South-East.  It is hard to see that this will improve until the economy does, since it is clear that the traditional employer response of doing more with less plays a very substantial role in these statistics.  67% of HRDs blame pure workload and nearly the same number pointed to the associated overtime and long hours.  The triple burdens of unachievable employer expectations, “economic pressures” (i.e. no salary growth and job insecurity), and inability to balance personal and professional commitments came next at an average of just over 30% each (no, I don’t understand the maths either).

Such things may be inevitable to some extent in tough economic times, but what the survey also highlights clearly is the extent to which much more avoidable factors also contribute to burn-out – lack of recognition, poor relationships with manager or colleagues, insufficient feedback from management and the absence of a clear business/department strategy are all seen as principal contributors by about 18% of survey respondents.

So are businesses addressing these relative “easy wins”?  In part only.  The survey lists the most popular pre-emptive measures as “promoting a teamwork-based environment” (as opposed to what?) at 50%, reviewing job functions and tasks (45%), encouraging team-building activities and providing flexible working options (34% each – still not getting the maths, sorry), and encouraging employees to take time off (31%).  None of these do much to address workload, but merely move it around or put it off to another day.  Only 19% of respondents planned to hire additional interim support (bad luck for Robert Half).  And of just treating your staff like human beings, being realistic and supportive as to what they can achieve and respecting their individual efforts, there is no sign at all.

There was no way to make Vietnam anything other than a war zone in 1968, but being seen to be “in the trenches” with your staff when times are hard and money is too tight to mention may mean that your workplace does not have to be the same.