Work-related stress and burnout: see the signs early and take the right measures

Amber Wigmore. Executive Director. Careers Services. IE Business School

30 May 2016

When a person is suffering from burnout or work stress, it tends to mean that they are no longer doing things that give them energy. In order to prevent this from happening, it is essential to recognize the signs and know how to combat the situation.

To be honest, there are some things it’s better not to be an expert in. In my case, after treating many cases of work-related stress, one starts to see certain behavior patterns and signs that are important to recognize in order to be able to find the calm and clarity of mind needed to convert stress into an opportunity. Those of us who work in the helping professions such as medicine, advice or teaching are more likely to experience work-related stress or burnout. Others who fall into this category include those who identify so much with their work that they are unable to find the balance between their personal and professional lives, those who try to be everything to everybody, and also people who feel they either have no control over their work or regard it as monotonous. 

To start with, we need to understand that burnout is a particular kind of work-related stress: a state of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, combined with doubts about one’s professional capacity or the worth of one’s work. 

From my experience of advising stressed out executives about their careers, very few know how to find the time, or they lack the courage to recognize that they are going through burnout, because they see it as a sign of weakness. 

This is where we have to understand that there is such a thing as good stress, such as the adrenalin we generate in a competition. There is also bad stress, which comes from too much work, too many demands on our time, chronic anger, and fear. People like this can become addicted to stress. 

Now for the key question. How far can one last in this state? We have to be honest with ourselves and recognize when we are stressed. This is the first important step, because from that moment we have taken control and are able to meet the demands of life with greater skill, freedom, and agility. 

How do you recognize burnout? In my experience it begins with chronically low energy levels, characterized by tiredness and the feeling of not being able to find the energy to motivate oneself. In such a situation, one has the feeling of dragging oneself to work and then having to face a mountain of problems once there. One doesn't have the energy to be consistently productive. Frequently it is hard to get off to sleep, and you wake up during the night. The next morning you don't feel refreshed. And this isn’t taking place over the course of a week, but for a long period. The people who come to see me with these symptoms have often become very cynical and can be irritable and impatient with workmates and clients. Finally, they begin to feel inefficient, as though they were no longer able to produce the same results they used to. They get no satisfaction from their achievements or any pleasure from work. In short, the link with the company and commitment quite simply isn’t the same. 

What causes work-related stress or burnout? The answer is that several factors are responsible, starting with the feeling of a lack of control. That’s to say, the inability to influence the decisions that affect our work, such as the hours involved, the mission, or the workload. Other classic cases can be attributed to a lack of resources, unclear expectations, and even a clash of values between the worker and the way the company does business. 

If the job doesn't adapt to the interests and abilities of the employee, the situation can become even more stressful over time. Another danger comes from working too hard. When a job is monotonous or chaotic, constant energy is needed to stay focused, and this can lead to fatigue and burnout. And if all this is compounded by a lack of support from those around us, making us feel isolated and causing an imbalance between work and private life, the mix can be an explosive one. 

Burnout has serious consequences, among them a reduced capacity for clear thinking, and in turn making the right response to a situation, which can leads to health problems such as fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, headaches, alcohol and substance abuse, heart disease, high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes (particularly in women), obesity and vulnerability to other diseases. 

What is the best way to manage burnout? 

Any of the above symptoms could be a sign that you need to build up your resistance. Some definitions of resilience include the ability to be flexible in our thinking, feelings, and behavior when faced with a challenge or periods of extended pressure so as to emerge stronger, wiser, and more able. 

This would be the time to pause and take a look at your life, focusing energy on what motivates you, and taking time to think about what you are doing and how to keep a sense of balance. Optimism, agility and goals should be the key themes in your life, at the same time as seeking to make an impact and to make your aspirations become reality. 

Burnout tends to mean that we’re not doing the things that give us energy. It is important to focus on high quality and to be grateful. We live in a society that is so focused on the future that we often forget to enjoy and appreciate the moment. 

The first steps toward doing this can be to fight tiredness, cynicism and inefficiency. Once we have identified what is feeding stress at work, we can come up with a plan to address the problems. Think about delegating, changing or modifying things so as to recover energy, take breaks so as to achieve maximum performance and try to inject more moments of positive feelings in the day. Try to change your attitude, focusing on the more agreeable aspects of your work and recognizing your workmates’ contributions. 

That said, sometimes, this isn’t enough and we have to assess our options by having a serious conversation with our boss about what is on our mind and working together to change expectations or reach a compromise solution. Would it be a good idea to share the work with somebody or to work from home some of the time? Is there any chance of attending a professional development program? 

It is important to know how to ask for help and look for support, whether through workmates, friends, or loved ones. If you have access to a mentoring program, join it. Support and collaboration can help to deal with burnout. 

During all this, it is important to be honest with ourselves, assessing our interests, abilities, and passions. An honest self-assessment can help us decide if we need perhaps to think about a different job, one that is perhaps less demanding or that reflects our interests and core values. 

And finally, look after yourself, do exercise and set yourself the goal of sleeping at least seven or eight hours a night. And at the end of each day, think about something good that has happened during the day and why that was important. People who do this suffer less from depression, sleep better, have more meaningful relationships and are generally more satisfied with life. 

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