The Burnout Epidemic

Burnout is on the rise in the U.K., where it's been called an 'insidious epidemic.' How can meeting professionals respond to mounting pressure?

Illustration by Red Nose Studio

In the U.K., burnout has become a “sinister and insidious epidemic,” affecting half a million people and compromising their physical and emotional health, according to a recent story in the The Guardian

The fact that burnout is on the rise was not surprising — we saw the same thing ourselves last year when dozens of people responding to our annual Salary Survey mentioned that long hours and stress were the least favorite aspects of their jobs. Our story also noted that although Americans tend to work longer hours than their European counterparts, work pressure is mounting in Europe. 

The value workers place on having a healthy work/life balance was recently underscored in Germany, where the largest union (IG Metall) just secured a deal in which workers can opt to take lower pay for working less (28 hours per week); do anything they wish with the seven hours of extra time (to spend with family and friends, or other off-the-job pursuits), and later return to full-time employment (35 hours per week). This is a landmark deal, according to Monthly Barometer, that other countries will try to emulate, in part to improve workers’ wellbeing. 

Among the comments we heard from meeting professionals about balancing the demands of work and life:  “I have a hard time balancing my personal life and my job. It’s hard for me to disconnect from work, so it can interfere with personal time (always checking email on weekends, etc.).” And, according to another respondent: “The assumption that we can drop everything and work on things no matter what time of day or how much other work we have is just crazy. I do have a life outside of work and would like the opportunity to live it!” And for another, simply: “Long hours, missing family commitments, long and many days on the road.”

Last June, we offered some ways of thinking about and responding to burnout, which are excerpted below:  


Americans are working more hours and using less of their vacation time than ever before — especially compared to people in other parts of the world. Two years ago, Gallup reported that full-time U.S. employees worked 47 hours a week, up 1.5 hours from a decade before, while last year research published by the Bonn, Germany–based Institute for the Study of Labor found that U.S. employees work nearly 25 percent more than their European counterparts. But it’s getting worse for them, too, according to a 2016 survey from London’s Chartered Management Institute (CMI) that found that 47 percent of U.K. employees, 56 percent of French employees, and 61 percent of German employees report working longer hours to get their job done than they did a year prior.

The numbers for the general workforce line up almost exactly with what meeting professionals report in our Salary Survey, which finds respondents work an average of 46 hours a week, with nearly 20 percent working 51 to 60 hours. That’s during the average workweek. Their workday often swells to 18 or even 20 hours on the run-up to a meeting and then when they get on site. “I actually have come to just loathe traveling,” said Kimberly Smith, director of conferences and events for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. 

“I used to think it was glamorous, you know? I’m flying here, I’m flying there! It was pretty good…. But that’s not the case anymore. It takes up a lot of your time — two hours of getting prepared to fly, then your fly time, then another hour trying to get to your destination. That’s a lot of pressure.”

Is any of this healthy? Jeffrey Pfeffer says no. A professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), Pfeffer has studied the deleterious effects of work environments, and currently is researching a book titled Dying for a Paycheck: Human Sustainability in the Workplace. “Our workplaces are killing us in several ways,” Pfeffer says in a GSB video. “Number one, they’re working us to death — too many hours. Hours have been shown, for instance, to be related to blood pressure in an almost monotonic relationship. Workplaces are killing us because they stress us, and absence of job control, work–family conflict, [and] economic insecurity [are] obviously stressful.”


But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Much harder to measure is the toll being extracted by the always-on, always-connected environment in which many professional employees now find themselves — with smart-phones keeping them tethered to their jobs wherever they are via email, texts, instant messaging, FaceTime, Skype, and countless other platforms. “Digital overload is arguably the defining problem of society today,” according to Anna Kotwinksi, digital wellbeing director for Shine Offline, which works with organizations and employees to identify the negative effects of digital technology on wellness and productivity.

“Twenty-four hours a day we are bombarded with endless interruptions through emails, texts, alerts, and instant messaging,” Kotwinski recently wrote on the Personnel Today website. “These distractions disrupt our flow of work and our train of thought, making it incredibly difficult to focus. For many it is far too easy to be reactive, wasting time on relatively useless tasks and interactions, remaining busy but not productive…. The digital revolution has also meant we can be available at all hours and are spending less time truly ‘off’ work.”

Meeting professionals are experiencing that as much as anyone. “I think that’s the culture that we’re moving toward, where everybody is responsible immediately, and I think management in organizations across the country need to fix that,” said Rebecca Murphy, CMP, meeting planner for the National Association of College and University Business Officers. “They’re the ones demanding it, and I don’t think that’s right.”

In fact, there are some numbers for this: In a survey of U.K. managers last year, CMI found that a majority were checking their work email outside the office enough that they canceled out their entire annual leave — 29 days a year. Some of our Salary Survey respondents can relate. Only 25 percent report using all of their vacation time, with a little more than a third each using most or some of it.

Respondents had plenty of comments about this. Asked what they’ve requested from their boss aside from a raise, dozens mentioned not just vacation time but the freedom to use it. One respondent wrote: “A break, ability to actually take and use vacation.” From another respondent: “The ability to actually take some time off. There is no good time of the year and I leave several weeks of vacation time on the table every year.” And another: “Stricter work hours. It is too easy now to work after typical business hours and while on vacation since the internet is so accessible.”

The first step is admitting you have a problem, and on that front at least there’s been some progress. Corporate wellness programs are increasingly standard, especially at the Fortune 500 level, and work/life balance is an established part of the conversation around office culture. And at the far end of the spectrum, France enacted a law this year that requires companies of a certain size to establish hours when employees should not send or respond to email.

Meanwhile, it’s on everyone to start pushing back against burnout and over-work. “I don’t have my work email on my personal phone,” Murphy said. “When I go home, I don’t check email, I don’t respond to text messages, because I have set the precedent with my coworkers that I’m just not available…. It’s all how we communicate with the people in our office and set the expectation.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.