I recently ran several in-house stress management workshops for a mixed bunch of designers, engineers, marketing, HR, production and support staff employed by a Sussex-based company. One thing became clear – some of them were heading towards burnout, yet this is a company that really takes workplace wellbeing seriously and invests in a number of initiatives and services to improve the health and wellbeing of their employees. So why were these people so stressed out?
Obviously, it’s a very dynamic business with high work volumes and there isn’t much that can be done about that. The company didn’t seem understaffed and in that brief time I certainly didn’t get the impression that the employees were unhappy about their job roles. So if that isn’t the problem, then what is?
Myth 1: Workplace wellbeing is just about the work environment
During the workshops it was interesting to hear about the different reasons why people decided to come. We also discussed the sources of stress in their lives. What really surprised me was that many of them seemed to make a clear distinction between workplace stress and the stress they might experience outside work. And yet if your body is under chronic stress, then you bring it with you everywhere you go.
Workplace wellbeing should never be viewed solely as a matter of providing optimal working conditions. It should be about creating a company culture where people do not feel reluctant to seek support from their line managers or HR even if their stress is caused by situations outside work. If left unattended, such work-unrelated stress is bound to spiral out of control: it will inevitably start affecting the employee’s work performance, increasing absenteeism and also increasing the likelihood of conflict with other co-workers since one of the main signs of stress overload is excessive anger and irritability. This is clearly not in the best interest of the company and certainly not in the best interest of the employee who is more likely to reach the burnout point by keeping things bottled up.
Myth 2: It’s none of my business!
Recognising the symptoms of an approaching burnout in others and offering support is equally important. If someone is behaving out of character – venting out frustration on others, making mistakes, missing deadlines, etc. – it’s very easy to get annoyed or sucked into an argument with them. Yet this is a classic sign of stress levels getting out of hand. In such situations, instead of engaging in conflict (and therefore creating additional stress for both parties), a far better course of action is to just offer such a person the opportunity to unload their burden.
Finding the right moment to approach the stressed person and opening up a conversation along the lines ‘You seem to be a bit out of sorts/tired/overworked/stressed lately, is everything OK? What can I do to help?’ might not always bring the desired response, ie. they might just say ‘everything is fine’. But it’s better to offer them the opportunity to talk about it rather than to not offer them that opportunity. And just knowing that you’re there for them might help them to open up and seek support from you at a later date.
Recognising when people are approaching the burnout point and offering support is not just the role of managers. Very often it’s the managers themselves who might be displaying symptoms of an approaching burnout, and their subordinates are the ones suffering the consequences of their erratic behaviour. So opening up the conversation about stress and offering support is essential regardless of whether the person in question is someone’s manager or a subordinate. Of course, this again comes down to creating a company culture where asking your manager if they’re OK won’t be seen as impertinence, but as a constructive and caring act.
Myth 3: Only ‘weak’ people experience burnout
Stress is a normal part of life and it’s not embarrassing to talk about it… it doesn’t show that you’re weak, it just shows that you’re human. Yet the stigma associated with workplace stress is still prevalent in many organisations.
A certain level of stress is actually good for us, as it increases our focus and motivation enabling us to achieve peak performance. But too much stress over an extended period of time inevitably depletes our emotional, physical and cognitive resources. In fact, it is often the people who thrive on stress that are at a greater risk because they are less likely to take notice of the signs of an approaching burnout. And even if they do realise that stress is getting out of hand, the fear of being perceived as ‘weak’ prevents them from seeking help.
By providing an environment where employees feel safe to admit that they might be finding it hard to cope with the level of stress they are currently experiencing – regardless of whether the cause of that stress lies in their work environment or not -, the company has an opportunity to provide support to those individuals, avoiding much more costly effects of having to deal with a burnt out employee. Additionally, offering and receiving support is likely to strengthen the relationship between individuals, creating a much more productive team in the long run.
Prevention is better than cure
The key to effectively managing stress in the workplace seems to lie in educating people about what stress actually is and how it affects them mentally, emotionally and physically.
One of the main things we ended up focusing on during the workshops was how to recognise stress in their co-workers and what to do about it. And even just spending that time together with their co-workers during the workshop and hearing what makes some of them stressed, seemed to already create a stronger bond between the workshop participants. There was an overwhelming sense of recognition that we’re all simply human and on the same boat, struggling to balance all the different demands that life throws at us.
For more information on how to recognise the point when stress starts getting out of control and how to help prevent burnout, I suggest reading this article: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/preventing-burnout.htm
You can also check your current stress level by completing this brief online stress test.
As the Programme Director of Sussex Wellbeing Company, my role is to help design workplace wellbeing interventions suiting the specific wellbeing targets, time frames and budgets of each client organisation. All our workplace stress management programmes are delivered by a multidisciplinary team of experts, and the effectiveness of each intervention is evaluated using standardised and validated outcome measurement tools.
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