Reaching the limit

How the workforce is battling with chronic stress and burnout – and what we can do about it.

Increased workload volume. Tight deadlines. A zero tolerance for ‘errors’. Sound familiar? These are problems noted in a 2017 research paper, which highlights these as factors effecting decision making and workplace stress. The paper is specifically investigating workplace stress in the forensic science field; it also points to other pressures specific to the profession such as technique criticism, repeated exposure to crime scenes or ‘horrific’ case details, and working in an adversarial legal system, which have all become more prevalent in the field over the last decade.

Changes to working patterns and the rise in technology use have been contributing factors to prolonged workplace stress across the entire working profession, particularly in high-pressure environments. This repeated exposure is known as chronic stress. It is a response to pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time in which an individual perceives they have little or no control.

It is unsurprising that humans struggle to function when stressed. Cortisol is the hormone which regulates a number of processes in the body, from immune response to metabolism. It is also the primary stress hormone, increasing blood sugar levels and suppresses the digestive system during times of stress. Together with adrenaline, cortisol is a major driver in helping the body react to stress. An overexposure to stress, and consequently these hormones, results in disruption such as sleep and digestive problems and headaches. This hormonal system also interacts with the regions of the brain controlling mood and motivation.

The body’s coping mechanism is stretched to breaking point when it is placed under stress for a prolonged period of time. Eventually, this chronic stress leads to burnout; an emotionally draining condition which is often misunderstood.

Burnout is often characterised by pure exhaustion; frazzled, drained of energy, the condition often revolves around the pressures of the working environment. But burnout is rooted more in a disengaged, cynical view of the world. Rather than on a cliff edge, emotions are blunted. Sufferers experience a loss of motivation and feelings of helplessness, detachment and depression. While burnout is not limited to any individual or profession – it can present itself in non-work settings too, dependent on certain lifestyles or personalities – it is heavily linked to stress in the workplace. So how can one spot the onset of burnout and mitigate against it?

“When you really think about burnout, it is stress that has been unmanaged.” Jennifer Moss is a journalist, speaker and author of the forthcoming book The Burnout Pandemic. “These things typically don’t happen until you have started to disengage. Once you layer on cynicism, which makes you feel like you have no control over the outcome, you’re then at severe risk of burnout.”

Burnout is a growing concern for business leaders, featuring more and more within corporate wellbeing strategies. The work starts at a rudimentary level of increasing engagement in one’s work. But the world is beginning this journey from a low benchmark. “Sadly, only 15% of the global workforce is fully engaged,” says Moss. In the US, UK and Canada the engaged figure rises to roughly 30%. “But it’s still 70% of the workforce that is not engaged.”

“By the time someone is really burning out, they could be exhibiting several performance issues. They could be irritable, disconnected, withdrawing; or they could be showing up late to work, leaving early, taking a lot of sick days.”

There are methods of assessing workplace stress and burnout. The gold standard for measuring the latter is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a psychological assessment of engagement and disengagement. The assessment is comprised of up to 22 ‘symptoms’, measuring emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a disconnection from coworkers and clients, and a low sense of personal achievement. In effect, much of burnout relates to issues around fairness and being valued.

While the MBI has been in place for decades, research has shown how COVID-19 has exacerbated the conditions that lead to work-related burnout. The pandemic has taken its toll on our mental state; the psychological effect that this collective traumatic experience has had over the last 12 months must not be underestimated. This effect is not a gut feeling, imprinted on the global psyche and reinforced by confirmation bias in the media. Neuroscience research observed a condition known as ‘brain fog’ – a term for poor cognitive function – in lockdowns compared to when restrictions were eased. Individuals suffered from an inhibited ability to concentrate on a variety of tasks, issues with short-term memory and a smaller capacity for problem-solving. The research suggested that this occurrence could have been set off by the increased isolation or a lack of variety in people’s daily routine. It may also be a symptom of prolonged stress and anxiety.

“One of the things that generally builds our cognitive hope is doing a simple task to start your day. For a lot of people, that’s getting showered and dressed, or commuting to work. In lockdown, the risk is to roll out of bed and switch on the laptop. Losing that has been so impactful on people from a wellbeing standpoint; we’ve taken it for granted and a lot of us might not know that we’re missing it, we’re just feeling an unease.”

For those forced to work from home, they are working longer hours and are lacking a meaningful connection to colleagues. This exhaustion and isolation is followed by an expectation to meet pre-pandemic productivity levels, particularly in the early stages of lockdown when remote workers were still finding their feet.

Says Moss: “I’ve been urging employers to admit to their workforce that the goals they used to meet, they can’t expect you to meet them right now.”

She thinks organisations – and individuals – are not placing enough emphasis on the experience of working in an environment that is not distraction-free, from childcare to flatmates, interrupting engagement and focus at work.

“You don’t bring your three children into the office and home-school them while you’re trying to conduct a video presentation. It’s a farce that we’re asking this of people.”

But equal to problematic ‘busy’ households are the isolated, single dwellings. “We found in two different research studies that people living alone, and those workers under 30, were the most isolated and were at the most risk of burnout.”

Indeed, Leesman research found that younger workers found working remotely more difficult, partly down to an inability to learn from others and connect with colleagues. Moss explains: “Some started a job in the middle of the pandemic, having never met their boss.

“They felt like their careers were being held back – like this was a pause in their career growth.”

Burnout is not just apparent in home-based knowledge workers – pandemic pressures have led to a growth of those in other sectors experiencing the condition, including medical professionals and teachers. Working longer hours in crowded hospitals in an unprecedented situation, many medical professionals have had to make distressing choices over which patients to treat next. Teachers, already coping with teaching larger classes, meeting targets and trying to offer one-on-one support to pupils, have had to attempt the same levels of tuition over video conferencing platforms. These professions in particular go against the disengagement argument, even pre-pandemic; they are likely to be highly engaged people at work and yet they can be severely burned out.

Root cause
These are major problems which have been heightened by the pandemic. But their foundations lay in broad engagement and happiness, dented by historic workforce issues.

“We’ve had the legacy of ‘overwork’ for a long time. And we’ve had systemic issues with gender equality and pay gaps, and issues with fairness for marginalised groups. These are all actually the root causes of burnout.” Moss says that people can only use up so many mental and emotional calories to deal with all of these external stressors. So how can an organisation approach the daunting task of dealing with a burned out workforce?

“Leaders are often shocked at how simple the interventions are. They’re used to spending millions of dollars on a major wellbeing strategy, but it’s largely just rooted in empathy and active listening.”

Without this, wellbeing strategies can be incredibly tone-deaf. “If a person has just finished a 60-hour work week, only to get a note from their HR manager to remind them to use their wellness app, that person is likely to suggest that if their workload is reduced by 20 hours, they would be more likely to use the app.”

She advocates addressing problems with ‘upstream interventions’ – consistently asking what people are feeling, how they are – to make mental health conversations safe at work. By taking the problem on at its inception, these interventions can be conducted in a non-intrusive way.

Moss tells the story of the boss of a Bangalore-based organisation. Upon the arrival of COVID-19, many of his staff were confined to their small, city centre apartments. Working from studios, many at the same time as spouses, added to their layered stresses. The solution was to create online social collaboration spaces, specifically for people to share their experiences and talk about the problems they were facing. This open forum created a level of peer support for those feeling isolated, disconnected and lonely. The success of the space was down to the boss crowdsourcing the solution in an authentic way, instead of coming up with a formal programme around connection.

What about the return to the office? As lockdown eases in many countries across the world, might we see a fall in the number of people suffering from brain fog? Might we see a reduction in the amount of people experiencing periods of chronic stress and burnout? It’s not as simple as that, says Moss – it’s more important than ever to be empathetic and actively listen to your workforce so that they feel heard and understood.

“We’ve been away long enough from the old way that our neural wiring has changed. Our habits have been ingrained.

“There are going to be needs for people that are super isolated, that are going to want to connect in person. But I also think that they need to be very empathetic to those people that are feeling afraid of going back to work or have concerns about being back at work.

“It’s so important to be asking people how they’re doing throughout the process.”

Much like the methods for dealing with chronic stress and burnout, the formula for organisations is simple; by basing anti-burnout strategies on prevention, the problem can be tackled in its infancy, before it becomes too cumbersome. The result? The workforce remains engaged and happier at work – but more importantly – healthier.

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