Managing Stress and Employee Burnout

Cara Obradovitz


November 2, 2020

Stress is an inevitable part of work, but when it gets out of hand, it is bad for both the business and employees. Increasingly, many workers are not only suffering from stress, but a more severe and prolonged condition that experts formally define as “burnout.” Just last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as a syndrome in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Previously, burnout was simply characterized by exhaustion. Now, the criteria have 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; and reduced professional efficacy.

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

Therefore, to help prevent employee burnout, employees must place greater emphasis on managing workplace stresses. This requires an awareness of the burdens that individual employees carry, the resources available to workers for effectively performing their job, the reasonability of timelines, and the consequences of success or failure. The degree to which these factors enhance or detract from an employee’s performance can significantly raise or reduce the level of workplace stress.

Sources of Stress

Systemic sources of workplace stress can originate from a range of issues, including those an organization controls, like performance objectives and staffing, and conditions it cannot fully control, such as availability of raw materials, consumer demand or pandemics. At the highest levels of the organization, executives need to be aware of how the workforce is affected by expectations and circumstances that may limit achievement and execution.

However, most workplace stress affecting employees is much more localized and controllable by those who manage employees directly. Regular and ongoing communication with employees gives supervisors insight into the stresses that employees are facing. Try to look objectively at how much each employee is taking on and maintain balance in the workload across the whole team. Every organization experiences pressure to succeed, but watch for undue stresses that impede peak performance and produce negative results. Finding solutions to reduce these stresses is essential to prevent employee burnout. You will not be able to address everything, but demonstrating empathy for your employees and their stresses is a good start. Simply showing you understand their challenges will go a long way.

The negative effects of burnout extend beyond the workplace and into employees’ personal lives, especially now that more employees are working from home during the pandemic. Many 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, as studies have shown that chronic stress can lead to lowered immunity, making individuals more susceptible to getting sick in the short term or even developing chronic conditions like heart disease in the long term.

As disorienting as it may be for employees to be away from their usual workplace for so long, the prospect of returning is causing concern for employees as well. Will the work environment be safe? Can they be sure they are not bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members? How will operational changes and social distancing impact their work? How will they deal with managing time and limited resources? Managers will also be dealing with their own emotions, but must additionally address the fears and feelings of their teams, which could prove challenging.

Recognizing and Addressing Stress

Prolonged stress causes burnout, so it is 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 identify and address the early symptoms of burnout. These can include: anxiety, worry and fear that begin to consume excess time and energy; a feeling of always being “on edge”; changes in appetite and physical activity; problems with sleeping; irritability; and increased drug or alcohol use.

A number of coping strategies can help employees control these negative reactions, including: performing self-care “first aid,” such as deep breathing, stretches, meditation and exercise; staying in the moment and resisting worrying about things that have not happened yet; and connecting with supportive family members and friends. Importantly, if they are having thoughts about harming themselves or others, employees should seek help by contacting their employee assistance program or calling local mental health services or crisis helplines such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Of course, it is not possible to eliminate job stress altogether, but effective management can keep stress levels from causing the acute, prolonged condition of formal burnout. This is even more vital with the added challenges due to the pandemic. Managers and supervisors should take the following steps:

  • Make sure that workloads are appropriate, and that employees truly have the support and resources needed 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.
  • Remote workers often face difficulties relating to workstation ergonomics, connectivity and bandwidth, and scheduling issues related to childcare and home schooling. See if you can offer solutions and flexibility to mitigate some of these challenges.
  • Confront harassment and discrimination in the workplace 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 employees.
  • Promote a positive work-life balance. Remote workers often work longer hours than when in the office and neglect to take breaks. Encourage employees to use their paid time off, even when working from home.
  • Find ways to keep employees moving. Exercise relieves stress and prevents injuries from sitting in front of a computer too long.

According to the WHO, depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact, with an estimated $1 trillion cost to the global economy from lost productivity alone. However, implementing efforts to alleviate these mental health issues in the workplace and providing treatment is a worthwhile investment. Another study led by the WHO showed that, for every $1 put into scaled-up treatment for common mental health disorders, there was a $4 return in improved productivity and health. By taking actions to reduce stress and prevent burnout, you and your employees can remain healthy and productive, even during this current public health crisis.

Cara Obradovitz is a health management specialist at Keenan.