A new report from researchers at Leeds Beckett University reviews the most effective ways to treat and prevent burnout and work-related stress, and revealed organizational interventions in the workplace may be more effective than individual interventions alone.

The report, “Interventions to Reduce Burnout in High-Risk Individuals: Evidence Review,” was commissioned by Public Health England and prepared by the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Beckett. It provides an overview of how individual and workplace interventions can prevent burnout and work-related stress.

“This evidence review highlights workplaces as a key setting for improving people’s mental and physical health, as well as their overall wellbeing,” says Dr. Justin Varney, interim deputy director for Health & Wellbeing (Healthy People), Public Health England. “Having a healthy workforce can reduce sickness absence, lower staff turnover and boost productivity. Employers can’t afford to wait until staff burnout happens; it is in their interest to implement healthy interventions which can prevent the main causes of it, including stress and musculoskeletal conditions.”

The review is one of four commissioned by Public Health England exploring priority – but generally under-explored – issues around health, work and unemployment. Findings from this report suggest that:

  • Interventions designed to reduce symptoms and impact on burnout and work-related stress were conducted more often at an individual or small-group level than at an organizational level.
  • Individual level interventions that can reduce burnout include staff training, workshops and cognitive-behavioral programs.
  • Changing aspects of an organization’s culture and working practices might be considered alongside individual level interventions to more effectively prevent burnout.
  • Changes to workload or working practices appear to reduce stressors and factors that can lead to burnout.
  • Evidence suggests that organizational interventions produce longer-lasting effects than individual approaches.
  • Organizational interventions in the workplace may be more effective than individual interventions alone.

Combining individual and organizational level approaches includes a system change that adopts a participatory environment, promotes open communication, encourages manager and peer support, promotes a culture of learning and allows successful participation of employees in planning and implementation of programs.

“Although there is existing evidence on what works to treat burnout and work-related stress, there is less on what works to prevent it from occurring in the first place,” said Dr. James Woodall, from Health Promotion at Leeds Beckett. “In undertaking this research, we found some evidence that individual interventions including staff training, workshops and cognitive-behavioral programs can reduce burnout. There is also some evidence to suggest that organizational interventions, such as changes to workload or working practices, produce longer-lasting reductions in stressors and factors that can lead to burnout than individual approaches.”

He added that researchers found that most existing research focused on large-scale organizations with few examples of interventions in small- or medium-sized working environments. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) account for 59.3 percent of private sector employment in the UK, so researchers suggest that further study is needed to determine what works in small- to medium-sized workplaces.

Estimates from the Labour Force Survey in 2013-14 suggested that the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 39 percent of all cases of work-related illnesses. Occupations with the highest reported rates of work-related stress were health professionals (in particular nurses), teaching and education professionals and caring personal services (in particular welfare and housing associate professionals).

“Understanding how burnout and work-related stress can be prevented and treated in workplaces is of great importance both from a public health perspective and for businesses aiming to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity,” says Dr. Anne-Marie Bagnall, from the School of Health & Wellbeing at Leeds Beckett. “Workplace health and worklessness are a corporate priority for Public Health England (PHE), as employment is a wider determinant of health. Burnout is associated with adverse health outcomes associated with stress, such as depression, musculoskeletal pain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature mortality.”