How to avoid workplace stress
An introduction to burnout
Workplace stress is likely to be an issue for all professionals at some stage in their career. No matter your industry or level of experience, managing stress levels is something all professionals need to practice to achieve success and happiness in and out of work.
If poorly managed, the impacts of workplace stress can cause workers to experience burnout, a phenomenon we’ve all become more familiar with over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
The last year or so has really tested us all, especially in achieving a work-life balance. According to research from Indeed earlier this year, 52% of employees feel burned out. What’s more, as searches online for ‘signs of burnout’ have increased by 24% throughout 2020 compared to the previous year, it’s never been more important to understand burnout and how it can impact our lives. The good news is that there are a lot of ways that employers and employees can reduce the probability of experiencing burnout. From self-care to evolving company cultures, the future of work doesn’t have to be one where digital burnout is commonplace.
In the age of multiple screens and constant communication, learning how to spot the warning signs of burnout and prioritising your mental health is an essential practice in order to have a sustainable relationship with our work and careers. In this guide, we explore what burnout looks and feels like, how to avoid it, and how to progress in your career without compromising your own stress levels.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a term we see thrown around quite a lot nowadays, but it’s a concept that has been explored since the 1970’s, with the publication of Herbert Freudenberger’s book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
We can understand burnout in the context of workplace stress, which many of us experience at some point or another. We can all become stressed at work, particularly if we are putting in longer hours than usual, there are important deadlines coming up, or we have issues in our personal lives. Research by Mental Health America and FlexJobs shows that 76% of respondents agreed that workplace stress affects their mental health and have experienced burnout.
Burnout is an extreme form of workplace stress whereby the stress you are experiencing makes way for mental and emotional exhaustion. The World Health Organization (WHO) characterises burnout by three main dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
When we are experiencing stress at work, it may be difficult to concentrate on tasks, and we may have feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious. But workplace stress becomes burnout when we no longer have the capacity to care or engage with our work.
Why do people get burn out?
Burnout is a result of excessive workplace stress, so it is essential to look at the factors that can create stress in the workplace, and therefore the environment for burnout to take place.
Being overwhelmed is a key driver of burnout, and many get to this point and then feel frustrated because they know they cannot be productive with their current workload. It is this loss of hope and engagement with work that leads to burnout amongst employees, making it a key area to focus on for businesses and managers.
However, in a working culture where employees are expected to ‘take one for the team’ and not question their superiors, workloads are often poorly managed and only reviewed when it is too late.
In fact, Qualtrics research shows that 79% of respondents in their survey of over 17,000 people across 26 countries feel “at or beyond workload capacity”. Considering this statistic in an area that is a leading cause of workplace stress, burnout looks more and more likely in the modern world unless companies change the way they operate.
What does burnout feel like?
As mentioned already, burnout is a mental state of exhaustion that results from being under excessive workplace stress. It manifests itself in a variety of ways regarding behaviour and feelings at work. These can act as warning signs to look out for in your teams or yourself. Let’s look at the ways that burnout can make us feel in our minds and bodies.
Burnout in the working world
What does burnout look like in the real world?
As a business, you have a duty of care to those who work for you. That extends not just to physical health, but mental wellbeing as well. Mental health is something which a lot of employers have been taking more seriously in recent years. Ensuring that the workplace is a safe space is also a large contributing factor breaking down the toxic taboos around mental health.Everyone has mental health. Here are some initiatives you can put in place to ensure employees get the support they need:
In this chapter, we’re going to explore what burnout really looks like in real life, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and what the impacts are for both employees and organisations. After all, it’s important to be able to spot burnout in ourselves and our colleague.As we covered earlier, here are the main factors that contribute to burnout:
- Excessive workload
- Toxic work culture
- Lack of social support
- Lack of work-life balance
- Excessive pressure to perform
But knowing what these are is only half of the puzzle. It’s important to look at how exactly these factors actually show up so that we can understand how to combat the signs of, and ultimately avoid, burnout.
Burned out employees exhibit certain behaviours that are telling of mental exhaustion, including a change in attitude towards work and lowered performance. It is different to workplace stress, as employees can be stressed and still do their jobs. Workplace stress becomes burnout when employees no longer have the energy for their work and feel disconnected from it.
Behavioural changes that can indicate burnout
Someone experiencing burnout may withdraw socially from the workplace due to the emotional and mental disconnect they feel towards their work. This can come in various forms, including:
- Missing meetings
- Not replying to emails or messages
- Disengaging from team activities
They will often feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained and won’t have the social energy to interact with colleagues or contribute to social events. If a colleague is doing this, then they may be in the early stages of burnout.
A burned out employee will also show higher absenteeism. Whether it’s taking time off or coming in late, or leaving early, they will find it challenging to fulfil all of their hours. In fact, research by Gallup of over 7,500 professionals in the US shows that burned out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day than employees who feel happy and engaged.
Struggling with deadlines
When under a lot of stress, it isn’t uncommon to miss deadlines, especially if someone’s workload is too heavy. However, a burned out employee will miss multiple deadlines as they are mentally drained and don’t have the motivation to do their work. It’s more about their lack of energy than it is about their workload. If a member of your team is missing deadlines repeatedly, then they may be burned out.
Affect on work performance
A direct result of the emotional and mental exhaustion that burnout brings is a struggle to perform your job role. Poor work performance, especially if an employee is usually high-achieving, indicates that they are struggling to do their job. Poor work performance can show up as:
- A drop in quality of work
- Failing to achieve goals
- Failing to meet productivity expectations
It should be noted that poor work performance isn’t necessarily an indicator of burnout. It could also point to workplace stress, but only upon further investigation will it become clear whether an employee is stressed or burned out.
Withdrawing from professional responsibilities
Burnout is characterised by a diminished sense of accomplishment and lack of connection to your job, so it isn’t uncommon to see someone suffering from burnout to withdraw from their professional responsibilities. Whether they usually lead meetings or have specific responsibilities that they are no longer fulfilling, feelings of disinvestment are common with burned out professionals.
Change in attitude
Most employees who are happy and engaged in their jobs will have a generally positive attitude toward work. And even those who are stressed will still put the effort in to reduce their stress levels and get their work done. However, a burned out employee will exhibit a distinct change in their attitude. Their attitude may change from optimistic and energised to:
The most important thing to remember with spotting burnout in the workplace is that it happens gradually. No one gets burned out overnight, so look out for these behavioural changes over time.
Burnout in the context of COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has caused huge shifts in the workplace, with millions moving to a work from home format and many workers with public-facing jobs experiencing a heightened level of anxiety and stress in the face of the pandemic.
With the sudden switch to working from home, many companies had to hastily adapt to a format of working that most of them hadn’t been able to fully prepare for. This meant that there was a lack of formal work from home policies in place, leaving both management and employees struggling to get into routines and balance their work and home lives. By August 2020, according to research carried out by Glint, employee burnout risk reached a two-year high, no doubt due to the uncertainty and stress that the pandemic brought on.
The uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to people’s working lives only exacerbated workplace stress and created another, more acute sense of stress that only increased the probability of burnout.
To understand exactly how the coronavirus pandemic, in particular, has exacerbated the issue of burnout, we need to explore these new factors, and see how some companies have responded to these.
Pressure to perform well from home
Many consider working remotely to be a perk of the modern working world. In reality, working from home offers increased flexibility to all, particularly staff who have caring responsibilities. This increases job satisfaction and overall employee happiness as they feel that their company is invested in helping them feel more empowered at work and work to suit their lifestyle.
However, working from home during the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been so much a privilege but a necessity, with Stay At Home orders issued to workers worldwide last year. And with this sudden change came pressure to maintain pre-pandemic productivity levels. For example, we can see this in practice, as Indeed’s Employee Burnout Report stated that 38% of employees who have been working from home during the pandemic feel pressure from management to work longer hours.
With such an unexpected change in the workplace and the danger that COVID-19 posed to us all, the pandemic understandably affected people’s ability to work, as well as their mental health and job satisfaction. Many employers realised that they needed to adjust expectations and be more flexible with workloads, with some implementing regular catch ups with teams to understand what they were able to achieve in a workday.
Work-life balance when working from home
People with children or other caring responsibilities have had to deal with work stress and care commitments side by side throughout the pandemic. A study in Belgium found that parents also experience “parental burnout”, which suggests parents and carers could be at greater risk of burnout. And women’s work-life balance has been the most affected, as shown by Lean In and Survey Monkey research. Their study showed that women have been impacted the most by the pandemic, spending:
This extra 14 hours inevitably eats into their personal lives, leaving little room for rest and leisure.
A lack of space also impacts work-life balance when working from home. Many people are working, eating, sleeping, and living in the same space, blurring important boundaries between work and play. It is all too easy to check emails during dinner or log on during the weekend to ease the workload during the week.
The office provided a regular routine for many and a refreshing change in environment. Part of why home workers struggle with work-life balance is because there is no physical ‘off’ switch that is usually triggered by leaving the office that ends the work day. Indeed’s research indicates that 61% of remote workers find it difficult to unplug after work.
When working from home in the same space that you are supposed to rest in, it is extremely difficult to switch off, only adding to the potential strain of work.
The mental and emotional toll of COVID-19
The last risk factor that COVID-19 brought about for professionals was one that the whole world was experiencing: an increased sense of general anxiety and isolation. Having to stay at home and being unable to see loved ones and friends impacted everyone’s mental health. According to research carried out by Qualtrics on a group of over 2,000 people from Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US in April 2020, 44.4% of those who moved to working from home say their mental health declined.
Aside from isolation, there was also anxiety about health and the safety of loved ones. With deaths from COVID-19 soaring globally, workers did not have to simply contend with staying at home but also worrying about the health of themselves and their friends and family. Qualtrics’ research also reported that 65.9% of people reported higher stress levels off the back of the pandemic’s outbreak, citing fears of contracting the virus as a key reason for their stress. This provides a unique insight into the sources of stress for workers during the pandemic, specifically that some of it wasn’t even coming from work.
Some companies responded to this by implementing regular meetings or updates where they provided employees with the latest information regarding COVID-19 to help keep everyone informed. A small act such as this can do wonders for relieving some anxiety around the pandemic, and create a sense of community in the company.
How to balance workplace stress and career progression
Workplace stress and burnout are traditionally associated with personal failure or weakness. Many people feel that if they disclose that they are suffering to superiors, their chances of progression will be affected. The pressure to be productive and high-achieving means that professionals are highly likely to compromise their wellbeing in order to secure promotions.But what happens when your energy and motivation has been depleted because of burnout? When workplace stress is ignored, it can pose more of a threat to career progression in the long term if employees find themselves burned out and unable to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
The impact of burnout on career progression
The mental exhaustion that burnout causes means that employees suffering from this extreme form of workplace stress will inevitably not be able to set or achieve goals, which doesn’t bode well for career progression.
Research by Gallup shows that burned out employees are 13% less confident in their performance and are half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager. This can be down to a lack of inspiration or motivation when employees are burned out.
Burnout can be difficult to recover from and potentially cost you promotions, so it poses a more significant risk to career progression than taking action to manage workplace stress.
Can wellbeing and career progression coexist?
The issue with the traditional approach to career progression is the notion that you must work non-stop and perform perfectly to climb the career ladder. This only further stigmatises workplace stress and continues to associate it with personal failure. In reality, stress is a part of our professional lives that we need to learn to effectively manage. Everyone experiences stress, so ignoring it only increases the likelihood of burnout later on in your career.
Looking at any career from a long-term perspective, avoiding burnout should go hand-in-hand with career progression. This is because maintaining a sense of wellbeing allows employees to be resilient and perform at their best. A report by McKinsey argues that wellbeing should be treated as “a tangible skill, a critical business input, and a measurable outcome” due to the benefits it can provide both employees and organisations.
Shifting attitudes and the values of a modern-day workplace don’t just recognise workplace stress as an issue but consider one’s ability to manage stress a strength. That strength will only support people throughout their career.One of the best things you can do is lead the way and set an example by doing the following:
Be honest and open about your own struggles
It’s okay to make mistakes or have a bad week, but far too often we’re worried about telling people what’s going on. However, attitudes are shifting in the workplace and people are realising the importance of talking about wellbeing. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can inspire others to also be honest about any difficulties they’re facing. Every person who is open helps to create a supportive environment. After all, help can only be provided if people are willing to open up.
Set an example for prioritising your own wellbeing
Similarly, the more people see you (and others) making time for themselves and creating a clear boundary between work and life, the more they’ll feel comfortable doing the same. This means finishing the day at a decent time, taking your holidays and not responding out of office hours. It should be seen as a strength that people are looking after themselves, taking the time away from work as they need it, and returning refreshed and motivated. Even early on in your career, you can be an inspiration for looking after your own wellbeing.
Learn to recognise the signs of stress in others
Burnout doesn’t have to be the future for workers
The last year has been extremely difficult for all professionals. In a world where uncertainty is becoming a part of our new reality, building employee resilience needs to be a priority for all businesses if they want to avoid burnout and meet the needs of their people. And the signs are positive, with the COVID-19 pandemic acting as a catalyst for positive change in the way that we work. Burnout doesn’t have to be the future for workers, and changes at both an individual and organisational level are how we can get there.
Attitudes to workplace stress are changing
With attitudes to mental health shifting to recognise the importance of it in our lives, the way that workplace stress is looked at is also evolving. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, we are also seeing it being taken more seriously by society, with many companies hugely improving the way they approach mental health and workplace stress. This social shift is what the world has needed to enact tangible, sustainable change.
Where wellbeing programs were once seen as a way to make employers seem more attractive or a surface-level ‘job perk’, they are now forming the foundations of a new workplace culture. It’s one that recognises that wellbeing is an integral part of any successful, sustainable business and makes investments in it at every level. Reducing employee stress and burnout is vital due to the potential benefits companies can reap in terms of productivity and engagement.