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Practical Wellbeing Topics

Work-Related Stress & Burnout

Work-Related Stress & Burnout

25/04/2019

This short guide looks at the causes of stress and burnout, recognising stress and burnout in yourself or others around you and practical strategies for managing stress and workload.

What do we mean by 'work-related stress' and 'burnout'?

The often-quoted HSE definition of work-related stress is the ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work’. It is generally recognised that work is good for us and a degree of pressure and challenge at work is healthy. Work-related stress can, however, be the result when a person no longer feels able to manage the demands on them.

Unsurprisingly, work-related stress – although not an illness in itself – can result in lengthy periods of absence from work as well as poor staff retention as staff leave to reduce their exposure to excessive stress. It can also develop into mental or physical illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, addiction or heart disease. Figures from the Office for National Statistics consistently show that stress is one of the top causes of sickness absence in the UK labour market.

Burnout generally results from lengthy periods of stress but it does not manifest in the same way as stress. It is essentially a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion characterised by apathy, lack of motivation and a general feeling of hopelessness.

What causes work-related stress?

Absence management surveys tend to suggest that the main causes of stress at work are around excessive workload, personal or family issues, management style, poor working relationships or large amounts of organisational change or restructuring.

The HSE has identified six factors that can lead to work-related stress if not managed properly. These are:

Demands Employees indicate that they are able to cope with the demands of their jobs.
Control Employees indicate that they are able to have a say about the way they do their work.
Support Employees indicate that they receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and superiors.
Relationships Employees indicate that they are not subjected to unacceptable behaviours, e.g. bullying at work. Relationship difficulties can be one of the biggest sources of stress.
Role Employees indicate that they understand their role and responsibilities. These are generally the easiest problems to solve.
Change Employees indicate that the organisation engages them frequently when undergoing an organisational change.

 

Symptoms of stress and burnout

The HSE points to the following symptoms as indicators that an individual is feeling the effects of stress:

Emotional Symptoms

  • Negative or depressive feeling
  • Disappointment with yourself
  • Increased emotional reactions - more tearful or sensitive or aggressive
  • Loneliness, withdrawn
  • Loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
  • Mood swings (not behavioural)

 

Mental Symptoms

  • Confusion, indecision
  • Can’t concentrate
  • Poor memory
  • Changes from your normal behaviour
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Increased smoking, drinking or drug taking 'to cope'
  • Mood swings affecting your behaviour
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Twitchy, nervous behaviour
  • Changes in attendance such as arriving later or taking more time off

 

Signs that a group of staff may be experiencing stress include:

  • Disputes and disaffection within the group
  • Increase in staff turnover
  • Increase in complaints and grievances
  • Increased sickness absence
  • Increased reports of stress
  • Difficulty in attracting new staff
  • Poor performance
  • Customer dissatisfaction or complaints

 

Burnout tends to manifest differently to stress although some of the symptoms above are typical of both and an intense period of stress tends to be the prelude to burnout. An employee suffering burnout may:

  • Feel tired all the time
  • Have no enthusiasm or motivation for work
  • Have difficulty getting themselves into work every day
  • Feel disillusioned and pessimistic
  • Struggle to pay attention or remember things
  • Experience relationship problems at work and at home

The need for early intervention

Being able to recognise the early signs of stress both in yourself and others means that efforts can be made to improve the situation before levels of stress escalate to the level where the individual can no longer cope and sickness absence is the result.

There are strategies which managers can use to help tackle the root causes of stress at work and you can find out more about these in our guide, Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace.

This guidance is focussed on personal coping strategies which can use yourself or suggest to others.

Get yourself a strategy

STEP 1: Understand your personal pressure points

  • What are your sources of stress? Where do they come from?
  • How do you react to them?
  • What situations do you handle well and less well?

 

STEP 2: Your plan

  • What can you do about the sources of stress you have identified?
  • Go through them one by one – what are the options for either eliminating or reducing these?
  • If there are no simple solutions, what small changes could you make which might improve the situation now?
  • Is there anyone who can support you with making these changes?

 

STEP 3: Taking action

  • Use your plan to start taking small steps to introduce change.
  • Set daily or weekly targets as a way of staying on track.
  • Give yourself permission to take time out for yourself – this is really important.
  • Involve work colleagues if the issues relate to work.
  • Recognise that you will not always be able to control or remove sources of stress but may be able to develop more personal resilience and coping strategies.

Tips for handling a heavy workload

  • Rejection of perfection: When completing tasks, learn to accept that sometimes ‘less than perfect’ will have to do. Set yourself a rule: are you 80% happy with what you have produced?
  • Work ‘smart’: try to structure time to get tasks completed and stay focussed; switch off or avoid sources of distraction. Keep a diary to organise your time and plan ahead to remove the constant worry that something may have slipped through the cracks. Prioritise your top three tasks for the day and focus on how you can achieve them.
  • Make time for physical exercise: yes, we know, you’ve heard it all before. Eat healthily, avoid smoking, excessive alcohol and caffeine and try to get enough sleep regularly. Set yourself some achievable goals for your own personal wellbeing. These basic things can be easily neglected when we are under pressure. Failing to look after ourselves properly simply puts more stress on the body.
  • Set boundaries for yourself at particularly busy times: try to keep at least one evening and one weekend day entirely free of work and then free up more leisure time again as soon as possible at less busy times. Learn how to say ‘no’ when necessary both at home and at work to safeguard time for you.
  • Make sure you take breaks: get away from the office or classroom during the day, even if only for a few minutes. Get outside at lunchtime today if you can. Take a short walk, spend some time enjoying your surroundings and appreciating small details.
  • Make time for family and friends and leisure activities: it is important to keep work in perspective and take time out to relax. Unplug from technology for a while. Try something new.
  • Be understanding of others: it’s easy to get stressed by how other people are making you feel. Listen well, appreciate that people don’t always say what they mean and words and actions don’t always come across as intended. Step back from the negativity of others. Be prepared to acknowledge when you’ve made mistakes but then move on.
  • Don’t suffer in silence: If the demands of work become too much, talk to senior leaders or professional colleagues about the difficulties you are experiencing so that they can help you to address them.
  • If it all gets too much see your GP: Don’t struggle on when you know you are no longer coping, you will cause more harm to yourself and affect your ability to support those around you. Equally if you see a colleague struggling, advise him or her to do so too.