Stress and burnout in the workplace: how you can avoid it

For many of us, burnout can seem like an occcupational hazard! Fight back with this 9 to 5 survival guide
Photography: Stocksy *


In a galaxy – OK, a staff canteen – far, far away, the biggest worries at work used to be who used the last teabag or forgetting to sign a colleague’s birthday card. But in 2020, office fears have escalated. Increased workloads and the possibility of redundancy mean we tend to stick to our contracted hours about as successfully as we do our sugar ban, and our heart continually pounds as we fret about meeting targets.

These feelings are backed up by figures: the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that 57% of sick days in 2017/2018 were due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression – mainly caused by an excess workload. And in May last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified workplace burnout as a global occupational phenomenon. Exhaustion is the new work uniform, and it’s a really uncomfortable one.

Particularly susceptible are the sandwich generation – those caring for children and older parents – and the self-employed, who are continually ‘on’. ‘The smartphone is the ideal burnout tool – an umbilical cord that constantly pulls you back to work, emails and networking,’ notes Dr Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.

So what exactly is burnout?

The resulting stress is like canned music on the shop floor – impossible to switch off from. What differentiates burnout from a mere ‘off-day’ are the repercussions for wellbeing. The WHO says burnout is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of a lack of energy or exhaustion; increased mental distance or negativity about work; and a reduced ability to do your job well. ‘Mainly, there’s emptiness,’ adds Dr Kinman. ‘You wake up from a bad sleep, gravitate to work, get nothing out of it.’

Stress builds up inside your body, too. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at America’s Stanford University and author of Dying For A Paycheck (Harper Business), analysed data that linked long-term work stress with employees’ health. In doing so, he unearthed a direct link to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, holding workplace stressors accountable for more than 120,000 deaths each year in the US. This suggests that we need to take work stress seriously and not just mainline coffee.

To extinguish burnout, spot the warning signs early. Keep a journal of workplace habits that make your heart sink (late-night finishes, early starts to stay ahead, skipped lunch breaks, etc), and how they make you feel. Or use a stress-monitoring app such as Welltory, specifically designed for under-pressure staff.

Once you know the causes, try these steps to reclaim workplace control – and contentment…

Drowning? Speak to your boss

‘When we’re burned out, our instinct is to not speak up, because we don’t want to compromise how others see us,’ explains Ros Toynbee, director and lead coach at The Career Coach*. ‘But if you don’t, you’ll believe the lie that you’re at fault, when it’s often the organisation.’ What to do? Firstly, book a conversation in a private room with your manager, then rehearse what you’re going to say so you get comfortable speaking up without bursting into tears! Explain, factually, what’s happening (‘I’ve been working until 11pm for three weeks’), detail the personal impact (‘I’m struggling to keep up’), then offer workload solutions, such as revised deadlines or delegating. ‘If your boss suggests something and you’re too scared to say no, add, “Let me sleep on that and come back to you”.’ Push back to get the right fix.

24/7 work culture? Set limits

Almost 83% of managers have said they would contact employees outside work hours. One study found that the mere expectation of having to work out-of-hours increased anxiety for the employee and their family. So, agree with colleagues when you are ‘on’ and ‘off’. For example: ‘I have to leave work at 6pm, but I’ll check my emails once more at 8pm. If something is business-critical (ie, there’s a flood), phone me.’ The same applies to WhatsApp groups with colleagues – they’re burnout fuel. ‘A colleague has an idea at 10pm and texts, “Hey! What do you think about this?” It demands attention now,’ warns Ros, ‘which massively increases the tension of the person who has to respond.’

Invent a new job title

Make-A-Wish Foundation – the charity for seriously ill children – introduced this initiative to help offset employees’ emotional burnout. Then-CEO Susan Fenters Lerch asked staff to invent fun job titles to describe their identities. She was the ‘Fairy Godmother of Wishes’, the admin assistant ‘Goddess of Greetings’. By bringing in personality, 85% of staff reported feeling less exhausted. Firstly, inventing a title reminded people of their contribution and value. Secondly, the fun titles broke down traditional workplace boundaries, which encourages communication, support and friendship.

Need a break? Take one

A 2018 study found that more than half of UK employees don’t take their full annual leave. But you need that rest: a nine-year study linked skipping holidays to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Research in the cheerily titled Journal Of Happiness Studies confirmed that our wellbeing increases while away, peaking on day eight – thanks to better sleep, fun experiences and recovery time. But even short breaks can make a difference. So, it’s really a case of knowing your personal unwind-style. If you mentally check-out the minute you set that ‘out of office’ email, then a long weekend might be ideal for you.

Remember your strengths

You know what you’re great at, right? Maybe not. Sadly, most of us dwell on what we’re not good at – a clear downer. Instead, Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School recommends listing times when you felt impactful. Struggling? Ask a friend or family member to share a story about a time when you really impressed them. Their response will probably highlight skills you didn’t even know you had. And here’s the really good bit: ‘The more hours per day people believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report being energetic, smiling or laughing a lot,’ says Professor Cable. Ros adds: ‘Think: where am I playing to my strengths in this job, and where not? Then, how can I change the parts I hate – maybe more training, or delegating? Then see your boss to make a plan of action.’

Eyeing the exit?

If the only way forward is a new job, avoid a repeat scenario with your next employer. Research the company on Glassdoor, which gives the inside scoop on employers, and play detective in interviews. ‘Observe the staff: are they frantic, or is the atmosphere of focus but ease?’ suggests Ros. ‘Plus, subtly ask about work-life balance: “How would you describe the culture here?”’ It’s also hard to come across as confident when you’re utterly burned out. Take some annual leave, rest up (and get help from your GP if you need to). When you’re feeling better, start practising interview answers and seek feedback from a friend. The key is to channel the body language and energy that will support great answers. In short, it’s about showing burnout who’s boss!

3 super-quick burnout extinguishers

10-minute buffers
4pm meeting? Down tools, build in 10 minutes before, and arrive on time, relaxed. ‘You’ll have better ideas than if you rush in five minutes late, in a panic,’ confirms Ros.

Remove your email tally…
… from all devices, says Bruce Daisley, author of The Joy Of Work (Penguin): ‘The number begs you to peek.’ Research linked reading emails to raised levels of cortisol.

Make a daily top trio
When you’re really up against it, think: what 1 to 3 accomplishments would make today a success? Then diarise the other stuff for later in the week, once the critical tasks are done.