At a glance
Stress can seem like an inevitable consequence of a fast-paced work environment. However, when it reaches chronic levels, it can result in what the World Health Organization (WHO) describes as an “occupational hazard” known as burnout.
In its latest International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the WHO defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The World Economic Forum estimates the syndrome is costing the global economy US$322 billion annually.
Georgie Chapman, workplace relations and safety lawyer and partner at HR Legal, says the WHO’s classification sharpens the focus for employers on “the ramifications of failing to ensure a psychologically safe work environment and/or failing to monitor the psychological health of employees”.
Burnout affects about 5-7 per cent of the working population, according to Michael Leiter, professor of industrial and organisational psychology at Deakin University. Leiter explains that it is difficult to say if the condition is on the rise, since burnout has not been tracked over time, and is likely to be hidden in the “mental stress” category of workers’ compensation claims.
Marcela Slepica, director of clinical services at AccessEAP, says burnout is now occurring in a broader range of sectors. “There has always been burnout in certain industries, such as the caring professions or first responders – police or emergency medicos – but I now see it moving into other industries, including professional services.”
Slepica says workload, constant change and workers feeling misunderstood by senior managers are common complaints from the finance sector employees she counsels.
Improving a person’s ability to manage stress and build resilience can help, but it is only half of the solution.
Organisational factors that are known to increase workplace stress include high demand, especially when combined with inadequate reward or recognition; low autonomy; inadequate resources to do your job; unsupportive relationships with managers or colleagues; a lack of clarity about your role; poorly managed change; and organisational injustice, where processes aren’t fair or respectful.
Other workplace stressors employees can experience include being forced to work in open-plan offices, even when conducting sensitive, confidential conversations with clients; losing administrative support; or battling with technology systems that are not properly tailored for the job.
How employers can help
Dr Sugumar Mariappanadar is a senior lecturer at the Australian Catholic University and author of Sustainable Human Resource Management: Strategies, Practices and Challenges. He says that organisations have a corporate social responsibility to minimise the harm that comes from the intensification of work that is so common in workplaces today.
“The organisation can establish its organisational performance expectations, then give this to employees, asking, ‘How do you think you can achieve this without burning out?’,” he says. “Employees then have the opportunity to identify changes to the system that would help them achieve a sustainable level of performance. This could relate to job design, performance appraisal or reward and recognition, for example.”
To help align business goals with employee wellbeing, Mariappanadar recommends that organisations adopt employee wellbeing as a key performance indicator.
According to Slepica, leaders and managers can be reluctant to consult employees about what they need. “They will often tell me that they know what their workers will say – that they need more resources – and the workplace can’t provide that, so they don’t ask.”
Slepica insists leaders still need to consult staff, communicate what they have heard, and explain what is possible and what is not, otherwise staff may feel even more frustrated and become less productive.
Slepica advises that managers approach the situation with the attitude of, “we are in this together, what can we do about it?”.
“This is so much more supportive than sending the person to the Employee Assistance Program to sort it out – we get that a lot. It also takes the pressure off managers to come up with all the answers themselves.”
Small business, high risk
Owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are an at-risk group when it comes to burnout. They experience higher levels of stress and mental health disorders compared to the general population, according to Dr Erin Landells from Deakin University’s Business School, and they often don’t have a human resources department to assist.
Financial pressures, attracting and retaining good staff, an inability to switch off, time taken ensuring compliance and a keen sense of responsibility for the livelihood of their workers were stand-out themes in the interviews Landells conducted with business owners last year. Isolation was also common, she says. Owners felt they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, talk about their business challenges with family or friends.
Landells is preparing to survey 2500 Australian SME owners to help identify key issues that lead to burnout in this under researched and under-resourced group.
“When I asked the business owners what supports they have to deal with these pressures, some of them just looked at me blankly, asking ‘what supports?’,” recalls Landells.
Heads Up, Australia’s mentally healthy workplace alliance, encourages small business owners to prioritise their own self-care and reduce isolation by accessing professional support through business networks, mentoring or confiding in a fellow business owner.
When someone is already on the brink of burnout, self-care is paramount.
Slepica has suggestions for people at risk of burnout. Step back from your situation to get some perspective. Ask if your work situation is going to change, or if there is no end in sight for your intense workload. Also, ask if there is a match between your values and your organisation’s values. If not, it may be time to look at other options.
She also advises finding something that is in your control, and acting on it. You may need someone to help you with this because when burnt out, your thinking becomes very negative and you feel as if you have no options. This could be as simple as leaving work on time twice a week and not checking work messages out of hours. Lastly, make sure you are staying connected to your loved ones.
Burnout is now classified as an occupational, not just an individual, issue. With pressure on professional services to survive disruption in a rapidly changing market, along with the fact that individual coping can only stretch so far, there’s never been a better time for companies to practise shared care for their employees.
Are you burning out?
Burnout isn't just tiredness. Recognise the symptoms and identify where workplaces can help.
The three dimensions of burnout
- Depletion or exhaustion, even on waking.
- Feeling distant or cynical: you are irritable or critical of co-workers, customers or clients. You feel disillusioned about your job and no longer care.
- Reduced professional efficacy: you lack satisfaction from your achievements, and you can see your performance slipping.
Source: World Health Organization
Symptoms can include
Negative, cyclical thinking that leaves you believing there is nothing you can do to improve your situation.
Inability to focus, moments of indecision, loss of perspective.
Feeling overwhelmed, out of control, may cry easily.
Physical complaints such as headaches, digestive problems or flare-ups of inflammatory conditions.
Source: Mayo Clinic
How workplaces can help
Consult the experts: your staff know what requires changing.
Ensure good job fit: by conducting thorough job analysis and effective recruitment.
Develop staff: provide training and mentoring. Equip employees to do their job well.
Supportive leadership: support from direct supervisors is vital to job stress prevention.
Participatory decision-making: give workers a say about factors that affect them.
Recognise and reward people: let people know when they are performing to a required level, and how they can improve.
Clear communication: communicate one-to-one and across the organisation to make sure people have the information needed to do their job well.
Job clarity: give people a clear idea of what they are meant to be doing.
Justice: ensure fair resource distribution and transparent decision-making. Treat employees with respect.
Source: Professor Andrew Noblet, Deakin Business School.