Running on Empty – Burnout Series Part 2: Responding to burnout in your workplace


This week we discuss how workplaces with high rates of burnout could be failing to meet their minimum obligations under New Zealand employment law, and the tools available to remedy this.

But first, we look at how employers around the world have responded to burnout and discuss whether these are effective strategies to curb a workplace culture of “busyness”. While these examples go beyond complying with minimum obligations, they are by no means panaceas to long-term or chronic job stress.


Paid time off

We have recently commented on Bumble’s decision to give its staff a week off work. While the terms around that have not been publicised, it is an arrangement Kiwi employers could also put in place. This could be achieved by offering:

These arrangements are often seen as the most effective as they are designed to allow people to fully unplug. If your organisation is considering one of these measures, we recommend that both parties are aware of how it will work before agreeing to it.

It is important to ensure those taking leave are actually able to have a break and do not feel pressure to monitor emails or take work related calls during their time off.


Flexible working

Deloitte has also made the news, for letting staff choose their own hours and “when, where and how they work”. Although these measures have not been cited as a direct response to employee burnout, they represent one possible solution which could allow employees to break up their day or change their work environment, to decrease stress and work when they are most productive.

From an employment law perspective, employers thinking of implementing similar arrangements should be mindful of their obligation to meeting minimum wage obligations and ensuring that employment agreements allow for flexibility across working hours and days.


Fringe benefits, bonus payments or paid overtime

Employers around the globe have offered their employees other benefits such as paid gym memberships or professional development opportunities to promote work-life balance or finding passion and harmony. An example of this is Jeffries Financial Group Incorporated offering its junior bankers a Peloton bike and Apple products in appreciation of their hard work.

Others may offer performance incentive payments or paid overtime to employees who work more than their contracted hours. Although these items go beyond complying with minimum obligations, we question whether they are effective or even appropriate responses to employee burnout resulting from working longer hours. We recommend getting advice around these payments as they are often not made in isolation and impact a number of other obligations, such as holiday pay.


What are the minimum statutory obligations in New Zealand?

The New Zealand employment law framework contains a number of safeguards for employee rights by setting minimum conditions of employment which employers must provide. We discussed these in our article with Umbrella Wellbeing. As well as being a compliance issue, a failure to meet these standards can be an indicator that workplace burnout is present – or imminent.

In our view, these minimum standards can be used as tools for managing and responding to burnout. For example:


What if these minimum obligations are not met?

A breach of any of the above obligations may see employers answering a wage claim or personal grievance from an employee, or being subject of a complaint to the Labour Inspector. The remedies available to an employee, if they are successful, include compensation for lost earnings (retrospectively and in the future), lost benefits and humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings (a remedy designed to compensate non-economic loss).

An employer could also be liable to pay fines or penalties to the Crown, which vary depending on how serious and sustained the breach is found to be.

Employers should also be wary of the human cost of avoiding employment obligations.


The impact on employees should be enough on its own, but add to that a high rate of staff turnover, an inability to get good staff due to reputation of poor employment practices and loss of institutional knowledge and productivity. 


The flow-on effects would see profitability reduced and more managerial time spent recruiting, which takes resources away from meaningfully addressing burnout.


What if staff need to work extra hours?

With the push for working longer (or flexible) hours constantly growing, many employers may find their standard employment agreements do not reflect the reality of their staff’s working patterns. As well as being at risk of a breach of contract, this is problematic because the law also requires employees to be reasonably compensated for being available to work outside their agreed hours of work. This is additional to the requirement to pay staff at least minimum wage for every hour worked.

If you are finding staff consistently work over and above their contracted hours, or the organisation needs them to be available outside ordinary working hours, we recommend seeking specialist employment advice regarding remuneration structures and employment agreements to ensure your organisation is complying with the law.

Looking ahead to the next article in our burnout series, we encourage employers to monitor working patterns and consciously measure the impact of their solutions to burnout.

Contact the Black Door Law team for advice around options for responding to workplace burnout, in a way that is aligned with your organisation.


Disclaimer: This information is intended as general legal information and does not constitute legal advice. If you have a specific issue and wish to discuss it get in contact with the Black Door Law team.