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Workplace Stress and Burnout: What Causes It and What Organizations Can Do To Help

Many of us have been able to move past the initial stress, fear, and uncertainty of the pandemic that naturally spilled over into the workplace. And yet, workplace stress continues to increase, with nearly 44% of respondents in a recent Gallup survey experiencing “a lot of daily stress.”1 What’s behind this continued surge in stress levels? And what can employers do about it? We take a look at these topics in this week’s blog.

Stress can be good for us in small doses—until it turns into burnout.

Sometimes we need that little jolt of stress to keep us alert and motivated to do our best work. But when stress overwhelms, it can lead to burnout—which the World Health Organization now classifies as an official syndrome.

Signs of burnout at work include lack of energy or feeling depleted; negativity and cynicism; and reduced productivity. Workers who are burned out can also experience physical symptoms like headaches, poor sleep, stomach pain, and increased blood pressure.

Workplace stress statistics show how dire the problem is. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report finds that employees are more burned out than ever—even more so than at the beginning of the pandemic.1 According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2021 Work and Well-being Survey, nearly 3 in 5 employees reported classic symptoms of burnout, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%).2

What’s behind this level of burnout?

There are likely several factors contributing to why employees are stressed and burned out:

External factors.

To be sure, worries about the economy and rising costs are causing significant financial stress. Layered onto this is existential anxiety about the geopolitical landscape and our own political divisions. In addition, supply chain disruptions—including the recent baby formula shortage—have affected our ability to get the goods we need. But they’ve also affected workload and morale for employees at the countless organizations struggling to navigate the impact on their own customers. Then there’s the continued childcare shortage impacting millions of parents. As a result, the APA reports that adults are emotionally overwhelmed and fatigued, with 87% agreeing that “it feels like there has been a constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years.”3

Emotional trauma.

The acute physical part of the pandemic may be over, but the emotional trauma still lingers. Gallup’s study found that worry, sadness, and anger remain above pre-pandemic levels.4 Younger generations, in particular, are grieving the loss of celebrating significant milestones in their lives as well as a sense of futility around making plans for the future. Racial and ethnic minorities have experienced a great deal of emotional trauma over the past few years, in addition to the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on these populations. Women have shouldered the lion’s share of extra household and caregiving responsibilities, and parents, in general, are still reeling from school and daycare closures. Many workers are also navigating a return-to-office after the freedom and flexibility remote work offered. Suffice to say, the emotional toll has been significant, and there’s no doubt it’s affecting how people show up to work every day.

Our unique work culture.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that some causes of workplace stress existed long before the pandemic began. One is our unique “hustle” or “grind” culture, a work culture in which personal achievement and worth are measured in terms of hours worked. Other causes workers cite include unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressure.1

Then there’s the technology that allows us to be “always on” and never truly “not working.” Add to the list the stigma that many feel around taking time off to recharge or even take a mental health day. All of this is bumping up against a collective reckoning that has workers questioning what’s truly important in life.

We should note here that many of the contributors to burnout listed above are largely driven by the person we report to. In fact, a manager’s effect on a workplace is so significant that Gallup can predict 70% of the variance in team engagement just by getting to know the boss.1  We’ll talk about ways managers can be more supportive of their employees further down in the piece.

What is the risk of having so many burned-out workers?

Organizations struggling with employee burnout are likely to see impacts in a few key areas:

A decline in employee health.

Stressed workers may be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like substance misuse, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. And because stress can exacerbate existing chronic conditions, it’s possible to see an uptick in absenteeism and presenteeism. Mental health can also suffer. In our work with clients over the past two years, we’ve noticed a strong correlation between stress and depression—60% of individuals at high risk for depression are also at increased risk for stress.5

A drop in productivity.

There’s no doubt that work performance suffers when employees are stressed, leading to reduced productivity. In fact, a study cited by the National Institute of Medicine found that “there is a negative correlation between overall stress and productivity: higher stress scores were significantly associated with lower productivity scores.”6

A decrease in employee engagement.

When workers feel so depleted that they have nothing left to give at work, engagement suffers. Gallup’s State of the Workplace 2022 report found that 60% of people are emotionally detached at work, and 19% are miserable.1 Let’s put that into perspective. Every 6 in 10 employees are emotionally detached, and nearly 2 in 10 are miserable. That’s a lot of suffering employees!

So what can employers do to reduce that stress?

Arthur C. Evans, Jr., Ph.D., the American Psychological Association’s chief executive officer, recently said,  “Pandemic stress is contributing to widespread mental exhaustion, negative health impacts, and unhealthy behavior changes – a pattern that will become increasingly challenging to correct the longer it persists.”7

Evans goes on to say that “It is urgent that as a nation we prioritize the mental health of all Americans and provide a universally accessible system of supports.” Here’s what this might look like for employers:

Open the lines of communication between employees and managers.

A manager is the first line of defense when it comes to reducing stress. Through weekly one-on-ones, managers can keep tabs on whether the workload needs to be adjusted, ensure that team members feel supported, and check in on the mental health of their team. It’s also important for managers to get to know employees on a more personal level. Gone are the days when it would be taboo to inquire about someone’s personal life. Now, it’s seen as an acknowledgment that people are humans first, workers second, and it’s vital in making people feel like they belong and work at a company that cares about them.

Make sure leaders walk the talk.

Lots of talk about self-care and stress reduction is meaningless unless leaders make a point to role-model stress-busting behaviors. This could include blocking time on their calendars for fitness or meditation, hosting walking meetings, and being open about taking time off to care for their own physical and mental health—or others in their life who need care. Doing so signals that looking after one’s mental health is a priority, empowering others in the organization to do the same.

Create a culture that encourages and supports boundary-setting.

  • Employees should set and communicate regular working hours, and block their calendars for self-care or focus time.
  • At the outset of new projects, hold a team meeting to set work expectations, hours of availability, and other boundary-setting details.
  • Consider sending reminders to shut down at a reasonable hour and schedule “quiet periods” when employees should refrain from sending or replying to emails.
  • Reevaluate time off and vacation policies to incentivize employees to take regular breaks. Possibly schedule mandatory company-wide “holidays” to encourage R&R.

Leverage your well-being program.

The mind-body connection is undeniable—when we’re feeling healthy, we’re more resilient and less stressed. So, promote your well-being program’s resources for increasing resilience, boosting physical activity, and eating well. Leverage health coaching for stress management services. Wellness challenges that inspire employees—and give them permission—to step away from their desks and move throughout the day are also a great idea.

Embed mindfulness, meditation, and resilience into the corporate culture.

Meditation and mindfulness are no longer seen as “out there.” Scores of successful executives and athletes use it to clarify their thinking, enhance performance, increase resilience, and reduce stress. If you have not made these kinds of resources available to employees to help support stress management in the workplace, think about how you can add them into your well-being program.

Promote your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Employee Assistance Programs are well-known for providing access to mental health counselors, but most also offer an array of programs to help with some of life’s common stressors—like figuring out childcare, taking care of elderly relatives, navigating life transitions like retiring or having a new baby, and more. So make sure you’re doing all you can to promote your EAP and the valuable stress-relieving services it offers.

Stress will always be a part of our lives to some degree, and that’s OK. But, given all of the recent external stressors and lived experiences of employees, employers need to play a role in a) not adding to that stress, where it can be helped, and b) providing resources for employees to manage stress so that it doesn’t lead to burnout. A work and leadership culture that promotes boundary-setting, emphasizes taking time to recharge, and provides holistic well-being tools to help employees cope with day-to-day stress is key. For help devising a well-being strategy to manage stress and burnout in your organization, visit our website or contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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