How to avoid burnout at work

By Val Leveson

With the holidays in sight and a pile of work to be done, it's more important than ever to manage your stress levels

Being exhausted at work is one tell-tale sign of burnout. Photo / Thinkstock
Being exhausted at work is one tell-tale sign of burnout. Photo / Thinkstock

It's that time of year when people are rushing to finish work projects before Christmas, putting in extra hours and feeling overstressed, overworked and plain exhausted.

David (not his real name), an accountant who works in Auckland, says: "I can't think straight anymore. It's been a really tough year. My company made many people redundant in 2012 and the workload has become enormous. It feels like it's expected - 'if you can't keep up, move out' has been the attitude.

"The problem is I'm married with small kids, and I feel I'm missing out on being the dad I'd like to be because of work demands."

The three dimensions to burnout, says Helena Cooper Thomas, senior lecturer of the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland, are: feeling exhausted, depleted and overextended; having a high level of cynicism and detachment from others; and reduced efficacy and feelings of poor performance, and these are matched by poor performance.

"A good way of telling if someone is reaching burnout is if they are becoming callous to others, are exhausted and have reduced competence."

Cooper Thomas says working long hours does not necessarily cause high stress, anxiety and burnout. "Working long hours is fine if you really enjoy the job (and) see work as being enjoyable and not a chore that you need to get through. There are some people who really thrive on working long hours, they are engaged and in a state known as flow."

Cooper Thomas says jobs that entail emotional labour, such as nursing, healthcare and teaching are particularly prone to burnout.

"It's jobs that require a lot of emotional management - when a person feels he or she has to hide their emotions at work - for example, a manager who is getting frustrated may hide that in order to keep his or her staff focused and happy. That can cause a lot of stress."

She says having a parent who is at the point of burnout can obviously affect the family adversely. It would mean that the stressed individual cannot engage well with his/her partner and children.

Cooper Thomas says an honours student of hers, Eugenia McGrath, has been working on a project on daily recovery from work. "It seems that more engaging activities in the evenings help you recover from the stress of the day."

There are a range of recovery activities. What works will be depend on the individual.

"For example, if you enjoy cognitive activities, Sudoku or bridge can be good. Other people like creating things - baking, sewing or DIY can aid recovery. Others get a lot out of chatting with friends or watching TV. Doing activities that help your recovery from work can help in feeling more refreshed when it's time to go to work the next day."

Cooper Thomas says family can definitely help a person recover from daily stress. "Families going for a walk or a bike ride after work can provide recovery and create positive emotions. Having everybody join in washing up or a card game are good to have as traditions in the family that can provide recovery experiences, as long as they are positive."

Cooper Thomas says burnout can happen when the demands of the job exceed the resources of the individual, such as when they are given too much work. There may be role ambiguity where the person's manager has not given enough information on priorities.

There may be a lack of social support and supervisory support.

It's not good for a company to have stressed, burned-out staff. "There's a lot of research out there that finds that there's such a thing as 'emotional contagion'. This means that a person's mood in the office has an effect on other people's mood."

Men and women are equally at risk of burnout, but interestingly, research shows that younger people are more likely to be affected - employees under 30 years old are most prone. Unmarried people are more at risk than married people - especially unmarried men.

Burnout can manifest in health problems such as heart attacks, addiction and other stress-related illnesses.

The type of personality that is more prone to burnout, according to research, she says, is people with poor self-esteem and an avoidant coping style. These people have an external locus of control - meaning that they are more fatalistic and think that things happen to them due to external events beyond their control.

As far as interventions are concerned, Cooper Thomas says it can be helpful to deal with the exhaustion through programmes focused on the individual, such as relaxation, time management, team building and/or meditation.

She says it is important for the organisation to make changes to help all affected employees and therefore the organisation overall.

"Make sure that the work environment is fair and equitable. Help employees see meaning behind what they do. Make sure the supervisor's values and the employee's are consistent."

A way to deal with stress and overwork is to make small changes in how you handle things, says executive coach Galia Barhava-Monteith.

"It's easy to get into a downward spiral. If you're stressed you can get more stressed and that can go into physiological distress.

"It can be that you're not concentrating properly and cause a workplace accident. It's really important to manage stress," she says.


Stress-busters

• For at least 24 hours on the weekend, don't check your email.

• Working mothers - spend time at the park with your children and leave the mobile behind. Take an hour and a half with the kids without the phone.

• Go for flow - if you're being constantly interrupted at work and everything is piling up, sit with the work and remove all distractions. Focus on it and it will get done.

• It's okay to take a day of working at home - you don't even need to get out of your pyjamas. It will help you get on top of your work.

• It's okay to sometimes lock yourself in the office. People who have at least three hours a week being productive are less likely to burn out.

• Look at your focus: how are you spending your time? Are you making time for family? What structure do you need to create to connect with your purpose? What are you trying to achieve?

- NZ Herald

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