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Stop stress and beat burnout with these five tools

By Dr Karen Morley, Executive Coach

  • The most significant reason behind the rise in burnout is an increase in meaningless work.
  • Organisations that genuinely adapt expectations to keep stress at a productive level and to prevent burnout will better weather the challenges that 2022 has in store.
  • This article outlines fives ways for both organisations and individuals to beat burnout.

As we face a third year of pandemic-related challenges, not the least of which is the ‘Great Reshuffle’, examining and adjusting work expectations is critical to sustaining organisational success.

Workers are weary, leaders are exhausted, and the risks that this exposes companies to are best managed by resetting work expectations and processes from the top down. Understanding how stress and burnout erode performance, engagement and organisational commitment should be a top priority. Getting a laser-like focus on the expectations and practices that cause stress and burnout will protect individuals from harm and increase performance sustainability.

In a work context of unrelenting demands, the ceaseless quest for increased productivity and the heightened uncertainty of a pandemic, it is not surprising to find an increased incidence of stress and burnout, particularly among high-achievers. Even before the pandemic, burnout was reaching ‘epic proportions’; since, anxiety and burnout have skyrocketed. Levels of distress in the community have doubled or more, and in some studies up to 90 per cent of workers claim they are burnt out.

Studies by organisations such as Asana identify one very significant reason behind the rise in burnout: an increase in meaningless work. ‘Working on work’, longer working days, unnecessary meetings, duplication of work, lack of clarity about roles and tasks, and increased hours sitting still watching a screen reduce the meaningfulness of work.

Some of this has settled as organisations have adopted better remote work technologies and practices. Some of it hasn’t — there’s an alarming prevalence of mind-numbing meetings for which agendas aren’t clear, too many people are invited, half the participants aren’t given a chance to speak, and there’s little or no follow-up.

Even though many of these kinds of stressors are, individually, quite small, they’re not benign. We automatically respond to stressful situations with a fight-or-flight response, whether the stressor is a lion on the savannah or a boss who doesn’t acknowledge your efforts. Again.

When the ‘threat’ passes, our bodies return from fight-or-fight to rest-and-digest mode. If we don’t perceive the threat as passing, our bodies remain in fight-or-flight mode for extended periods of time. Blood pressure remains elevated, breathing stays rapid and stress hormones continue to circulate.

The more often stress is experienced, and the more stressors that cause it, the greater the potential for it to become chronic. A day filled with small yet continuous stressors, which turns into a week of the same and then a month of yet more of the same can easily turn into chronic stress.

Burnout is stress that’s experienced specifically in work circumstances. It’s caused by a mismatch between the person and their job which might be temporary or ongoing. It occurs when job demands are too high, resources are inadequate, there’s little social support, the person has low autonomy, there’s a perception of a lack of fairness, and the reward–effort ratio is out of balance.

 

Too much stress can kill you

Dedicated, highly motivated workers – particularly leaders, high achievers, and those in health and service industries — may put up with high levels of stress for long periods of time, experiencing chronic stress. This has a compounding negative impact on brain structure and function as well as overall health, contributing to memory, attention and emotional difficulties.

A WHO study released in May 2021 claimed that in 2016, 488 million workers were exposed to the risks of long hours and more than 745,000 people died that year from heart disease or stroke caused by overwork (working more than 55 hours a week). Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to overwork increased by 42 per cent and from stroke by 19 per cent.

 

How to beat stress and burnout

It is most likely that your best talent is most affected by stress and burnout. In a strange way, it signals how dedicated and committed they are. They should be your ‘canaries in the mine’, and you should keep a watchful eye on them.

They tend not to complain, they keep taking on work when they shouldn’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) and they’ll continue to help others out. There’s the chance that they will crash and burn, or they’ll leave because they feel they’ve gone past the point of no return. Don’t wait until it’s too late!

Five ways for organisations to beat burnout

To reduce burnout:

 

  1. Give workers the resources they need, set realistic work standards and prioritise clear communication about expectations. Keep people up to date on what’s going on in the organisation, so they understand the context for their work.
  2. Allow a reasonable degree of autonomy. Give people a sense of choice.
  3. Acknowledge people’s achievements and make sure you do it fairly.
  4. Foster civility and positive, supportive relationships amongst working groups, and between leaders and their teams. Make sure leaders work in service to their teams, and particularly, support their top talent.
  5. Help people to clarify their purpose and values, and to see how these connect into the organisation’s. That helps people to make sense of change and challenge, and promotes wellbeing. Clarity of purpose promotes engagement at work, while alignment of purpose promotes commitment to the organisation.

Five ways for individuals to reduce stress and increase wellbeing

To reduce your own stress:

  1. Recognise when you are experiencing stress.

Understanding when fight-or-flight kicks in and knowing what your body is doing helps you make sense of the situation and gives you a chance to decide what to do about it. What typically triggers a stress response for you?

  1. Reframe — find a more positive way to frame the situation.

If you can reframe what is happening and see it in a positive light, you can help to reduce your stress. For example, think about successful past experiences you’ve had navigating this kind of situation. What happened in your previous experience? What contributed to your success? Tell yourself – ‘You did it before; you can do it now’.

  1. Regulate — connect to purpose and hopefulness.

When you deliberately connect to hope and to your higher sense of purpose, this triggers rest-and-digest mode, helping your body to recover. Ask for help from trusted others, as this increases your sense of connection.

  1. Recharge — replenish your energy as it is consumed.

Being resilient in the face of stress isn’t so much about being able to endure more but about recharging more. The harder you work, the more recharging you need.

Rather than push through your day and then use your leisure time to recover, recharge during the workday, even if you don’t think you need it. Ways to recharge during the day include shifting your attention, changing work tasks, taking short breaks when you feel your energy wane, going for a walk, putting your head on the desk for five minutes, or having a warm conversation with a friend or family member.

Recharging through the day means you’ll feel less depleted at the end of the workday, and be able to use leisure time for leisure rather than recovery from work.

  1. Renew — frequently engage in a variety of renewal activities.

Intentionally activating rest-and-digest mode ameliorates stress. It stimulates renewal by improving the functioning of the immune system, stimulating new nerve cells and improving cognitive functioning.

Ways to trigger rest-and-digest include caring for others, caring for or playing with pets, having an enjoyable meal with family, volunteering, taking a nature walk, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, purposeful reflection, laughter, spending quality time with partners and playing. Both frequency and variety in these activities are important. Variety increases resilience and empathy, and positively affects engagement, wellbeing and career satisfaction.

Organisations that genuinely adapt expectations to keep stress at a productive level and to prevent burnout will better weather the challenges that 2022 has in store. And so will their top talent. Paying attention to the factors identified above — with sincerity and consistency of focus — is a much better strategy than continuing to expect people to go above and beyond what’s reasonable and then plugging in a wellbeing program. Forget the optics, you can get straight to the heart of it by preventing the factors that cause burnout, and helping people to manage their stress response.

Dr Karen Morley can be contacted at www.karenmorley.com.au

Material published in Governance Directions is copyright and may not be reproduced without permission. The views expressed therein are those of the author and not of Governance Institute of Australia. All views and opinions are provided as general commentary only and should not be relied upon in place of specific accounting, legal or other professional advice.

 

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