burnout at work: advice from a mental health expert

Read more from our mental health expert, Kirsty Lilley, as she shares her thoughts and advice on how chartered accountants and ICAEW members can prevent and address burnout at work.

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Earlier this year, we published our Shining a Light on Mental Health white paper, which revealed 55% of accountants are suffering from stress and burnout, with 79% saying poor mental health is a problem within the accountancy profession.

Given the impact of the pandemic on our working and personal life and the cost-of-living crisis, not to mention major global events, as well as the everyday challenges we face, it’s not surprising burnout is becoming more widespread.

Research carried out by the independent thinktank, Infinite Potential, last year, found that burnout is a growing problem, significantly negatively impacting people’s wellbeing, productivity and quality of work. 

However, while studies have indicated self-care is an important part of preventing and recovering from stress and burnout at work, it’s not enough. Organisations need to play a greater role in creating structures and cultures that successfully manage mental health-focused workplace psychosocial risk factors.

burnout is an occupational syndrome  

Burnout was defined as an occupational syndrome by the World Health Organisation in 2019 that can be identified as

  1.  Emotional exhaustion. 
  2.  Depersonalisation or negative, cynical attitudes towards work, colleagues and clients. 
  3.  Reduced personal accomplishment. 

Further to this, multi-dimensional approaches are increasingly being recognised as the solution to dealing with any form of burnout, with people being encouraged to take proactive action to prevent and deal with it, such as:

1. Approaching and being honest with your line manager  

Identify areas of your role that are causing the most difficulty, see if you can identify some workable solutions and share them with your line manager. 

Working together to identify ways forward and managing expectations is key. High demands, reduced resources and little sense of control are key features of workplace stress. 

Explore the factors that contributed to your burnout. Try to pinpoint when it started and how it developed and work out an action plan, with the support of others, to deal with it. 

2. Identifying any burnout-inducing personality traits 

Research has shown that people, who are conscientious, identify strongly with the role they play at work and exhibit perfectionist traits. As a result, they are more likely to experience burnout. 

Interestingly, caba’s Shining a Light on Mental Health 2022 white paper revealed that 63% of workers believe one of the challenges within the profession is the complex nature of the work, which leaves little room for error. This means that the above traits are often highly-valued and necessary, but at what cost? 

Having healthy expectations of yourself is a key life skill.  Being honest with yourself and evaluating how you support and motivate yourself during high stress periods is essential. It’s often too easy to fall back on harsh self-criticism to get though challenging times. 

The evidence suggests that self-compassion helps alleviate the impact of burnout and stress. What’s more, those who recognise their own distress quickly, and take helpful action to alleviate it, are more likely to recover well. 

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3. Recognising the value of rest and relaxation 

We all need to rest to allow our body and mind to decompress from busy periods and integrate new learnings. Rest, fun and play are a fundamental part of leading a healthy life. 

Maintaining healthy relationships is vital for our mental health and wellbeing. It can help us remain emotionally-balanced and is underpinned by having the right amount of rest and activity in our life. 

Make sure you use all of your holiday entitlement, and that time is set aside within busy working weeks for adequate rest periods. Consider how you are spending your downtime too. If you are constantly worrying about work, it will be counterproductive and wear on you emotionally. 

Review how much time you actually spend resting and practicing self-care and make these two areas a pivotal part of your life. It may be helpful to work through these issues with a coach or counsellor. Many of us have blocks, fears and resistance when it comes to looking after ourselves. Talking everything though with somebody can be really helpful.

4. Seeking out connections 

Turn towards trusted allies and supportive people to share your difficulties with. Learning to open up and share with social connection is a good antidote to cynicism and inefficiency. 

Unfortunately, stigma still plays a key role within workplaces. As a result, people don’t feel comfortable about speaking up about stress and pressure. Rich interpersonal interactions at work and in our personal life ward off the feelings of isolation that distress can often bring. We need to create spaces in our lives, and at work, where people can share stories and gain support. By talking openly can we start to change the culture of putting work before our health and wellbeing. 

If you’re struggling to find peers to talk to, try out Qwell, our safe and confidential online community where you can talk to others going through similar experiences.  

Your burnout experience is unique to you…. 

We all have different capacities, resources and live in different situations, so comparing your ability to cope with how other people function is counterproductive. 

Create your own personal toolkit and recognise that your health and wellbeing is pivotal to being able to live your life as fully as possible. It’s also worth noting that many of the ideas suggested above will need the support of your line manager and organisation as a whole. 

…but you shouldn’t have to tackle it alone  

If you need help because you’re feeling burnt out, we provide confidential counselling online or over the phone from registered counsellors, who can work with you to find the answers to your situation. 


About Kirsty Lilley 

Kirsty is an experienced mental health specialist, registered general nurse, psychotherapist, mental health first aid instructor, coach and mindfulness practitioner. 

She delivers mindfulness and self-compassion courses to public and private sector organisations and develops wellbeing policies and training to improve workplace mental health and wellbeing. 

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We support past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW), ACA students, ICAEW staff members, and the family and carers of members and students. 

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