News & Insights

Leadership burnout in a global pandemic

Long before the additional challenges presented by COVID19, organisational leaders were leading on empty. Developments in technology, the culture of long working hours and unrealistic targets and deadlines were making it increasingly difficult for senior executive employees to bring an end to the working day. This has been significantly exacerbated by the COVID19 global pandemic with the challenges of managing teams working remotely, the pressures of generating and maintaining revenue streams and the worries regarding job security in a very uncertain labour market. Exposure to this type of pressure and stress over a long period of time does lead to burnout.

Burnout has been defined by the World Health Organisation in it’s 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as follows: –

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
> Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
> Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
> 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.”

Burnout can have a very serious impact on both the physical and psychological health of an employee.

Physical symptoms can include sleep disturbance, raised blood pressure and heart palpitations and gastrointestinal issues. Psychological symptoms can include anxiety, rumination and low mood. When these symptoms are not addressed, it can lead to more serious and permanent issues. The biggest asset of a senior executive employee is his/her ability to earn a living. Symptoms of burnout and stress over a long period of time can really affect this asset. It is at this stage that such an employee may consider legal redress.

In order to establish liability and damages for injuries suffered as a result of burnout and stress, an employee will need to prove the following:

(i) There must be an injury to his/her health. If the injury does not manifest in physical symptoms, the injury to health must be a recognisable psychiatric injury. A specialist medical practitioner will have to make this diagnosis.

(ii) The injury must be caused by the workplace stress or burnout. Again, it will be for a specialist medical practitioner to determine the causation of the injury.

(iii) The cause of the burnout must be an actionable wrong. What this means is that there must be some form of negligence or breach of duty. When assessing whether the treatment of the employee was actionable in law, the court will adopt an objective test.

(iv) The injury to health must be foreseeable in that the employer must have foreseen that the employee’s health would be affected by how he/she was required to work. This is particularly relevant where grievances have been previously raised in relation to the demands of the working environment.

There has been a significant increase in this type of workplace litigation over the last number of years. It is set to increase further as key workers in organisations juggle the demands of professional life and personal life in a pandemic to provide the “business as usual” service. All employees, irrespective of seniority, are entitled to a safe working environment, free from hazards such as excessive stress and with appropriate rest and break periods in accordance with the law. Rested employees are productive employees which makes for a better working environment.

*Before acting or refraining from acting on anything in this guide, legal advice should be sought from a solicitor.

**In contentious cases, a solicitor may not charge fees as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement.