On the brink: Burnout in the workplace

Work stress takes its toll on your physical and mental health. You need to watch for the warning signs and to know your limits, says Aileen Lee

Modern culture glorifies a relentless pace of work, to the extent that the admission of feeling stressed can feel like an admission of failure in your job. Couple that with a toxic work culture or uncertain conditions and you can find an employee on the slippery slope to burnout.

In 2016 the ESRI found that 18% of workplace absences were attributable to work-related stress, anxiety, and depression (SAD). The study, entitled Musculoskeletal Disorders and Stress, Anxiety and Depression in Ireland, found that SAD was the second highest cause of work-related illness in Ireland.

The highest was work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) at 50%.

However, SAD-related absences were associated with longer absences from work, an average of 17 days in a 12-month period, as opposed to 15.9 days for MSD-related absences.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. In his most recent book, Dying for a Paycheck, he writes:

The workplace profoundly affects human health and mortality, and too many workplaces are harmful to people’s health — people are literally dying for a paycheck.

Pfeffer cites extensive examples from across the globe of the negative effects toxic work practices have had on people, to the point, in some cases, of pushing them to suicide.

Other examples given include serious health effects such as collapsing from fatigue, developing a dependency on anti-depressants, or substance abuse.

Amid this work-related stress, burnout can rear its ugly head. A form of chronic stress, burnout leads to physical and emotional exhaustion; cynicism and detachment; and feelings of ineffectiveness.

Patricia Murray, organisational psychologist with the Health and Safety Authority of Ireland (HSA), explains that it tends to build up over six months. The factors that contribute to burnout, she says, include being in a high-pressure job, with cognitively demanding tasks that are slightly stretching the person all the time or for which they’re not trained.

Another factor is a person finding themselves in a work situation over which they have no control.

A lack of support in the job or at home is a red flag.

“If their manager is not supportive; if their peers are not supportive, or they don’t have peers; and if there’s no support for them at home, that’s going to be one of the big red flags for someone getting burnt out if their job is stressful,” she says.

In terms of legislation, the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Acts (2005 and 2010) require employers to secure the health safety and welfare of employees and provide a safe place of work.

Martin Rogan, chief executive of Mental Health Ireland, says the health and safety precautions applied to an employee’s physical health apply equally to their mental health. “It’s irresponsible to leave people in a situation which you know is untenable or unsafe.

Since the recession, I think things have become very competitive, and sometimes employers will do the utmost to minimise cost. Most employers, particularly as we’re returning to full employment, are beginning to realise that’s it’s not sustainable. If the workforce is unhappy or unhealthy, they simply won’t be able to serve their customers.

Dublin-based psychotherapist Dermot McCarthy works with a lot of clients suffering from burnout. He has also personally experienced it while working as an accountant.

The recession hit and he was made redundant. On the return to work in a new company, he felt lost. The previous redundancy; a tense work environment; and a lack of support in starting into the new role eventually resulted in burnout.

He recalls the symptoms: “I remember the irritability, really going in terrified to the job; bringing it home, feeling tired, a lack of motivation, and it really affecting my personal life”.

McCarthy says that over-commitment to the job can be a contributory factor in causing burnout. He sees this trait in his own clients.

“A common theme in most of my clients is that they are the classic people pleaser. From my experience in the corporate world, you must look after yourself. I would have sunk if I hadn’t started looking after myself and asking for help.”

Not only can people overcommit to work, but they can also overplay their ability to cope with highly stressful situations. “Some people think they are more resilient than they are,” says Murray. “They take on more — they come in earlier, they leave later, they go for promotions.

No one thinks they’re ever going to get burnt out, but sometimes, if you look at the people who do get burnt out, some of them don’t realise their own vulnerabilities.

Taking breaks is a key step in creating boundaries for yourself in the workplace. Not eating your lunch at the desk or opting to get some fresh air on your lunch break are important habits to develop in your workday.

McCarthy says that while deadlines or certain elements of an office dynamic can be out of your control, steps like this are within your control and can help you manage your day better. He cites additional examples such as scheduling a 10-minute break when you have completed a task or scheduling something to look forward to after work.

He used to schedule in a spinning class, which he loved. He also took steps to become more involved in the social aspects of his workplace, allowing him to widen his support network.

Outside of our homes, we probably spend most of our time at work. The community aspect of our workplace, therefore, is an important aspect that needs to be nurtured and maintained.

In this context of looking out for one another, Murray flags some of the signs co-workers might notice in someone suffering from burnout.

“A person would start having much lower motivation and they might even dress themselves differently because when you get very cynical and you do not feel effective, you present yourself to the world as a lesser effective person.

“What you look out for is the difference — someone that used to have as their value system high-achieving, well presented, early, attentive, talkative to an absolute retraction from those things.”

Many employers provide employee assistance programmes to provide confidential counselling and guidance for employees who are experiencing difficulties at work. These are welcome supports, but with burnout employers need to create a workplace that considers the whole person and does not see them as solely a component in the company machine.

So how can employers in Ireland safeguard against burnout?

Murray says that a personal approach works best. “You need to have a management group that’s well educated in diplomacy. You might go the person and say, ‘Listen, I have noticed there’s been a bit of a change in you, are you OK? Is there anything I can do? You don’t seem yourself’.

“Use words that aren’t judgmental and try and approach the person in an informal way.

The intrinsic thing that employers should do is make sure that no one is coming in too early, leaving too late, or on the company ticket all the time.

“The system of work shouldn’t allow for burnout. It should allow for positive feedback as well as negative feedback. It should be ensuring that people are not seeing work as their life”.

Mental Health Ireland offers the following guidelines on managing work-related stress:

  • Take at least half an hour for lunch and get out of the workplace if you can.
  • If you need to bring work home, try to ensure you only work in a certain area of your home — and can close the door on it.
  • Recognise the importance of protective factors, such as exercise, leisure activities and friendships.
  • Watch out for the cumulative effect of working long hours by keeping track of your working hours over a period of weeks or months rather than days.
  • If possible, assess your work-life balance with colleagues and with the support of managerial staff. The more visible the process, the more likely it is to have an effect.
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