Staying Ahead of Employee Burn-out


Workplace stress is an inevitable part of business, but when stress gets out of hand, it’s bad for business and the people who do the work.

Workplace stress is an inevitable part of business, but when stress gets out of hand, it’s bad for business and the people who do the work. Just last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burn-out to be a syndrome in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Previously, burn-out was simply characterized by exhaustion. Now the criteria for burn-out has been expanded to include:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

In May 2019, WHO also clarified in a public statement that burn-out is an “occupational phenomenon” resulting “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The negative effects of burn-out extend beyond employees’ work life and into their home and social life. Within the current COVID-19 pandemic, this is especially true as many more employees are now working from home. A large number of people are trying to cope with unemployment or job insecurity due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus. All of these stresses can combine to increase the risk of illness. In the short-term, lowered immunity can make individuals more susceptible to infection; in the long-term, it can lead to development of chronic disease.

According to the WHO, depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact; the estimated cost to the global economy is $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. However, implementing efforts to alleviate these mental health issues in the workplace and providing treatment is a worthwhile investment. In a study led by the WHO, for every $1 put into scaled-up treatment for common mental health disorders, there was a $4 return in improved productivity and health.

As disorienting you may have found being away from your usual workplace, the prospect of returning is probably causing concern as well. Will we have a safe environment? Can I be sure I’m not bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members? How will the change in routine and physical distancing affect your work? How do we deal with resource and time management? While managers are dealing with their own emotions, they will also be supporting their teams with their fears and feelings.

Burn-out is caused prolonged stress, so it’s important to recognize the signs of workplace stress. For supervisors and managers, it can be difficult to see the subtle changes until they become severe. Therefore, it is helpful to educate employees on how to gain emotional awareness to address the early stressors that can lead to burn-out.

Emotional awareness is the skill of recognizing how stress affects you and knowing how to resist responding to stress-induced emotions negatively. To reduce stressful interactions with your colleagues and family members, watch for these signs:

  • Anxiety, worry and fear that begin to consume your time and energy
  • Feeling on edge
  • Changes in your appetite and physical activity
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Increased drug or alcohol use

If you find that burn-out is affecting you, it’s the time to bring your reactions under your control. A few suggested coping approaches include:

  • Self-care “first aid,” such as deep breathing, stretches, meditation and exercise
  • Stay in the moment and resist worrying about things that haven’t happened yet
  • Remember that you choose how you respond
  • Connect with friends and family who have been supportive to you
  • Seek help if you think about endangering yourself. Call the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Distress Help Line at 800-985-5900

Of course, it’s not possible to eliminate job stress altogether at your workplace, but effective management can keep the stress levels from creating employee burn-out. It’s even more vital with the added challenges due to the pandemic. Managers and supervisors need to address the following concerns:

  • Make sure that workloads are appropriate, and that employees truly have the support and resources to perform their responsibilities.
  • Check in with employees regularly to facilitate communication, both about the work and how they are coping with these unique circumstances.
  • Harassment and discrimination in the workplace must be confronted immediately. Do not tolerate bullying, discrimination or any other similar behaviors whether in the office or the virtual workplace.
  • Recognize and celebrate individual and team achievements. This improves morale and communicates that the organization and management care about them.
  • Encourage a positive work-life balance. Remote workers often work longer hours than when in the office and neglect to take breaks. When employees work from home, using their paid time off still needs to be encouraged.
  • Find ways to keep employees moving. Exercise relieves stress and prevents injuries from sitting in front of a computer too long.

Reducing negative stress and preventing burn-out helps you and your employees remain productive, even during this current public health crisis. Dealing with small issues proactively is far less time consuming than reacting to a major incident. The motto throughout the coronavirus pandemic has been “we’re all in this together.” This is especially applicable to adapting to the remote workplace and the particular stressors COVID-19 has created for everyone.

Cara Obradovitz is Health Management Specialist at Keenan Insurance. She has gained a broad array of experience from her nearly 11 years of involvement in the health and wellness industry, working with small, medium, and large organizations in a variety of settings to develop, implement, and manage their employee wellness programs.

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