Burnout Goes Beyond Pre-Christmas Stress

Burnout Goes Beyond Pre-Christmas Stress

Christmas time, and the holiday season more generally, can trigger stress and anxiety, and some workers may even describe it as a feeling of being ‘burnt out’. But burnout in the workplace goes beyond chronic stress; it’s an all-consuming condition leading to less engaged employees, a reduction in productivity and a drop in morale.

This is not helpful for individuals or the organisations they work for and requires partnership strategies to promote staff wellbeing to counter the crippling effects of burnout.

According to the World Economic Forum the annual cost of burnout to the global economy is estimated to be USD $322 billion, which includes the amount lost by higher rates of medical leave and absenteeism.

On a local front, a large study into the mental health of corporate Australia found almost one in three workers from a range of industries was suffering from some form of mental illness. Of those, 36 per cent were suffering from depression, 33 percent from anxiety and 31 percent from unsustainable workplace stress.

In May, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) re-labelled burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, recognising it as a form of work-induced stress.

According to the new definition:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

Workers who suffer from burnout describe it as feeling mentally, emotionally or physically exhausted. It can include feelings of being disconnected or indifferent to their work and colleagues, and they may show outward signs of anger or resentment and could be increasingly emotional. They also have difficulty concentrating and regularly make mistakes.

Burnout can lead to serious health issues, affecting wellbeing and quality of life. Research has shown workplace burnout can cause a variety of negative consequences, including absenteeism, and reduced performance on the job, causing significant costs to the individual and the organisation.

In an ABC article, The real signs of workplace burnout, psychiatrist Professor Gordon Parker AO, founder of the Black Dog Institute, described the difference between burnout and stress. “Stress is when you’re in that fight or flight mode,” Professor Parker said.

“Your adrenaline is pouring out and you’re fired up and you’re doing things and you’re on the go. Burnout is when that fire is no longer present… your eyes are looking a bit blank and your mind is a little bit blank and you’re not performing as well as you should be. The true state of burnout would be where the individual is exhausted week in week out… it’s unrelenting and unremitting.”

Employees and organisations have an important role to play in identifying and managing burnout. But while employees can treat the symptoms, employers have an organisational responsibility to tackle the causes of burnout, promote staff wellbeing and ensure that they have support systems in place.

What causes burnout?

Burnout can be triggered by continual exposure to stress, long hours and a high-pressure work environment. Research has shown some industries such as emergency services – doctors, nurses and paramedics – the legal profession and those dealing with the public, such as teachers, care workers, and retail staff, are at a higher risk of burnout. However, it can happen in any job.

Factors leading to burnout, include:

  • Always-on mentality:

The 24/7 era of being online and contactable via mobiles and email make it hard to switch off from work.

  • Lack of job control:

Employees who feel unable to exercise personal control over their environment and daily decisions coupled with a lack of resources tend to be at a greater risk for burnout.

  • Unclear job expectations:

Employees need clear and realistic goals. Role ambiguity about what a supervisor or others expect has a negative and significant effect on job burnout and job performance.

  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics:

A toxic work environment or being micromanaged will contribute to greater job stress.

  • Extremes of activity:

When a job is monotonous or chaotic, an employee will need constant energy to remain focused, which can be exhausting. Also a continual and overwhelming workload can leave an individual struggling.

  • Work-life imbalance:

Imbalance between personal and work life can lead to serious or adverse effects on health and wellbeing, triggering emotional stress, anxiety and depression. This imbalance usually occurs when the boundaries between an employee’s professional life and personal life are not clearly defined.

 Prevention is the best way to avoid burnout

Recognising and promoting mental health is essential to creating a safe and healthy workplace. Research has found that a focus on the job environment, as well as the person in it, is vital for interventions to deal with burnout.

While individuals have a responsibility to set their own boundaries within the workplace and to pursue coping skills to manage stress, these resources alone are not sufficient. They fail to tackle factors such as overwhelming job demands, a challenging work culture or a lack of job resources.

Addressing workplace culture is a large part of the solution, structural factors like excessive workload and long hours are part of the solution but businesses need to create spaces for open conversations about how people are actually going. Here are some tips to prevent burnout:

Improve communication:

Setting up open communication channels in the workplace is essential. When a business talks openly about mental health issues like stress and burnout, employees may be more likely to discuss how they are feeling. Managers need to be proactive by checking-in with staff regularly and, if needed, informing them of any support services or assistance programs available. Managers can also be trained to recognise the signs of chronic stress and burnout and how to respond to the mental health needs of employees. This would allow managers to become more aware of factors contributing to a positive work culture and to develop their skills to build strong, supportive relationships with members of their team.

Manage workload and enhance job resources:

If an employee lacks resources such as time, materials or support staff their workload can become overwhelming. Regulating the workload to ensure this imbalance does not occur and improving access to resources such as equipment, materials and expertise will help and support staff to achieve their goals. The manager or supervisor should include the team or individual in the workload conversation and be prepared to adjust a job if an employee is overloaded.

Set a good example:

Managers should set the tone when it comes to work-life balance. If a manager is putting in long hours, sending emails late at night and working weekends, employees can feel pressured to emulate this behaviour. Managers also need to protect themselves from burnout.

Support work-life balance:

Promote a culture of work-life balance by respecting the life workers have outside of the office and providing wellbeing initiatives at work. Encourage employees to take regular breaks throughout the day, especially lunch breaks – it will boost employee wellness and work performance. Provide wellbeing initiatives like discounted gym memberships, massage or yoga at work, free fruit or consider flexible working schedules – the list is endless. And while technology allows employees to be connected to the workplace 24/7 do not set this up as an expectation. Holidays need to be taken and managers should ensure time off is indeed time off.

Recognise contribution and offer feedback: Lack of appreciation and recognition or lack of direction can lead to frustration. Rewarding efforts and recognising an employee or team contribution or achievement for the business are essential to minimising stress. Praise should be specific and highlight what was done well. Offering appreciation can be as simple as saying ‘thank you’.

Connect to purpose:

Purpose and meaning at work really do matter and according to Dr. Laura Hamill, Chief Science Officer of the Limeade Institute, “True engagement comes when people feel good and live with a sense of purpose. And helping employees connect to their purpose at work is key for burnout prevention.”