Female worker pensive looking at laptop

COVID-19 and burnout: How to spot the symptoms and provide support

Did you know that mental illness was the top reason for TPD claims and the third most common reason to claim on income protection for ClearView in the 2021 financial year? And with working from home disrupting many people’s work-life balance during the COVID-19 pandemic, around half of the mental illness claims in our reinsurance partner Swiss Re’s Australian portfolio cited work as a contributing factor.

With this in mind, a recent Swiss Re podcast took a deeper dive into the reasons work-related burnout is contributing to mental health claims, and discussed tips to manage burnout with our clients and ourselves.

Swiss Re Retail Claims Manager for Australia and New Zealand, Kacey Crawford, pointed out that burnout costs the Australian economy almost $15 billion per year, and that 3 in 4 Australian professionals experienced burnout in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Other research also found a 5 per cent increase in psychological workers compensation claims in the 2021 financial year, and we’ve seen through our deep dives into in-force portfolios in Australia and New Zealand that around 40 to 55 per cent of mental health claims had work as a contributing factor,” Ms Crawford said.

Swiss Re Claims Services Manager for Australia and New Zealand, Lucy Hartley, said while burnout was not a diagnosable mental illness in its own right, it was often a warning sign that someone was at risk of developing mental illness if they did not address work-related stress.

“The World Health Organisation definition of burnout is an occupational syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed,” Ms Hartley said.

“When we’re looking at it from that perspective, we’re looking at someone with energy depletion, increased distance from their job, feeling cynical towards work, and often reduced efficacy and productivity. If it’s left untreated, it can develop into anxiety and depression, and this is what we will typically see on claims.”

She added that women typically suffered from the condition more than men, and that certain occupations – particularly healthcare and frontline workers – remained at higher risk for burnout during the pandemic.

Certain factors within the culture of a workplace could also dictate whether someone would suffer burnout, including being micromanaged or having inadequate training.

“People like to make decisions about the way they work and when that is taken away from them it can cause stress, which leads into wanting a level of autonomy over the way their work is done,” Ms Hartley said.

“Capability and job match can also be a trigger – sometimes people are not the right fit for their job and there’s a gap between their skillsets and the duties required. When there’s that mismatch it can lead to stress because the person is not feeling like they’re achieving, and they are underperforming when their employer is looking at their work.”

Periods of redundancy, which had hit some industries during COVID, could also be a trigger for workplace stress, as well as the lack of support or visibility a lot of employees were feeling as a result of a remote work environment, Ms Hartley said.

“A lot of people have had the pressure of home schooling for long periods of time, and the usual period of set work hours has been disrupted while we’re balancing work and home life. It might mean we’re working at different times of the day and night to try and fit in a full work day around home responsibilities,” she said.

When dealing with a mental illness claim where burnout was a factor, Ms Hartley said it was important for insurers to engage with the customer’s workplace to help reduce some of the stress triggers that had caused them to go on claim initially.

“We need to be thinking about what good work is and returning customers to good work, particularly when we know there’s issues such as burnout,” she said.

“When we’re checking that work is good for a customer we’re working with, we want to make sure they’ve got a say about the way they’re doing work, they’ve got the support they need to do their role whether they need training or management support, that they understand their roles and responsibilities and they’re able to cope with the demands of their job.”

It was also important for financial services professionals themselves to look for signs of burnout in their own lives, so this could be addressed before it reached a critical point.

“Be aware of what signs you have when your energy is dipping - you might be feeling snappy or quicker to anger, you could have low concentration, experience body aches or find yourself more emotional than usual,” Ms Hartley said.

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