Last year three in four UK workers told a major study that they had felt so overwhelmed at work that they were unable to work at all. It is estimated that some 12.5 million working days are lost to stress-related illness every year in the UK alone.
Chronic, intense stress which is left unmanaged can lead to ever bigger problems such as burnout, which the World Health Organisation added to the International Classification of Diseases this May, describing it as an ‘occupational phenomenon’.
Defining burnout as a syndrome ‘resulting from chronic workplace stress’, the WHO said it was characterised by feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance and cynicism and negativism toward one’s job, as well as reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout comes with incredible personal cost and big knock-on effects in productivity. Claire Mitchell, a Jersey-based integrative psychotherapist, said she often saw clients at risk from burnout. After being pushed to the brink for many years, things start to slip. ‘Burnt-out people drop many balls,’ she said.
An individual who is experiencing burnout can feel paralysed. They cannot face returning to work, sometimes for months or even years. They say it can be like they are operating in a dense mental fog where they are unable to concentrate or make decisions.
When dealing with clients on the brink, Mrs Mitchell told Business Brief she encourages them to think differently about the balls they are juggling, to try to find perspective.
She said the questions to ask were: ‘Is it a bouncy ball? Does it really matter? Can you catch it? Or is it a glass ball. I tell clients that glass balls are the really important things. Is someone going to die? Is it going to involve someone being traumatised?’
nA growing phenomenon for
Some professions are more susceptible to burnout, including the caring professions, according to Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi, a physician and PhD who now works as an executive coach and consultant. But she said: ‘Anyone who works too hard is at risk.’
‘It can affect any industry,’ she said. ‘Healthcare and allied helping professions are known for the “compassion fatigue” type of burnout.
‘Entrepreneurs are also increasingly recognised for high levels of mental-health problems (depression and anxiety). But it can affect anyone, from teachers to CEOs of big companies. Three key factors can lead to problems in the job itself, regardless of the industry: low job control, an imbalance between effort and reward and rigid hierarchical structures that leave little space for innovation and creative thinking.
‘Among my clients, people who have a tendency to rescue and fix problems seem to be at highest risk but also people who value achievement but have imposter syndrome, so feel that whatever they do, isn’t enough.’
nCheck in on yourself
Dr Anima – the name she goes by on her popular newsletter Wise Wednesdays – advises that people strive first and foremost to be a good boss to themselves.
‘Spend some time preparing for your day and then reflecting on it, every day, as if you had a great boss keeping an eye on you,’ Dr Amina said. ‘It’s the only way to know that you’re on the right track for you, detect problems early and take action to not just prevent burnout but make sure you’re spending your precious time in the best way possible for you.’
Many people feel disconnected from their work, she added. ‘Work should bring meaning, connection, challenge, personal growth and joy while providing something of value to society,’ she said. ‘Today, research shows that most people are not engaged with their work and struggle with work-life balance.
‘If you’re not experiencing the positive factors in your work, then take a step back and ask why? Then it’s a matter of deciding what can be done in the short, medium and long term. For example: improve self-care, strengthen boundaries with work and colleagues and get help.
‘Then start to look at whether the situation can be improved by restructuring your role, to do something that challenges you and brings you joy plus improving work-life balance, or whether it’s time to move on.
‘Prevention of burnout in the long term requires that individuals raise their self-awareness to make the right choices and for organisations to develop healthy work cultures.’
Stepping away from the main pressures in their lives is something many people find hard to do, however. Mrs Mitchell said she encourages her clients to embrace mindfulness.
‘The burnt-out person is always looking to the next thing,’ she said. ‘They are like rabbits in headlights. They are not living in the present. A simple exercise of trying to stay in the present (tasting your coffee, noticing your colleague has a cold, looking people in the eye, paying attention to the sounds around you) can really help.’
Getting out into nature can also be beneficial and the Channel Islands are blessed with a wonderful variety of beaches, walks and countryside to enjoy.
‘As a psychotherapist, I talk about contact with the environment,’ Mrs Mitchell said. ‘Go out into the world, feel the sun on your face, don’t just go through the motions. We are not human do-ings, we are human be-ings. If we take more time to “be” and less time to “do”, the world would be a better place.’
She also recommends setting firm boundaries. ‘Burnt-out people have often taken on too much,’ she told Business Brief. ‘These are the people that just say ‘‘yes’’ too often. We should know our boundaries. What we have capacity to do and what we do not have capacity to do. Adults who have grown up as children who need to accommodate, please, be perfect, achieve and be loved, are more likely to take on too much.’
Balance can also come from embracing perspective and the ability to let go. ‘When we are burnt out our perspective goes and everything is HUGE,’ Mrs Mitchell said. She suggests that people try to mentally look down on their problems from above, as if in a helicopter, to try to put them in context.
‘Imagine your worries like a balloon,’ she added. ‘There is no point ruminating on them. This means we are not living life, now. We are stuck in some sort of alternate reality regurgitating the same concerns around in our mind.’
Burnout is a business issue which should be viewed just like any other occupational safety risk and raising awareness of it in the workplace should be a first step, according to psychotherapists. The more employees know about the effects of stress, how to manage it and how to spot a growing problem, the less the chances of problems spiralling.
As the director of Guernsey-based Catalyst, which provides confidential counselling, stress management and mediation services, Felicity Quevâtre said she often sees clients who are experiencing or approaching burnout.
Stress becomes most unmanageable when a lot of issues arise simultaneously, she told Business Brief. ‘People will say, “I managed last year. Why am I not managing this year?” ’ Mrs Quevâtre said. ‘Really, the circumstances may have completely changed.’
People put incredible pressure on themselves and as stress builds, they can get caught in a tunnel of despair. ‘They feel paralysed by the degree of stress they are experiencing,’ she said.
Take steps to help employees find balance
While individuals can try to protect themselves from burnout through practical steps like getting sufficient sleep, watching caffeine and alcohol intake, eating healthily and embracing regular physical activity, as well as making time for friends, a workplace commitment to safeguarding employees’ mental wellbeing can be beneficial for companies of any size.
While many large organisations are beginning to prioritise healthy workplace cultures, small and medium-sized business have lagged behind, yet studies show their workers are experiencing high levels of stress.
Setting up structures to help your employees manage stress does not have to be daunting, however.
Mrs Quevâtre said simply having some kind of counselling service in place can go a long way. It sets the tone that employers know their staff members are people who may occasionally need help. It makes employees less hesitant to face issues, if they know they have access to a confidential, professional ear.
‘Don’t be afraid to get the ball rolling,’ she advises employers. ‘Having a counselling service is very comforting for employees. It pays dividends in productivity and decreasing absenteeism. It’s really an investment for employees.’