Stress, Strain & Burnout: What to do?

In our 24/7 world of commerce, time pressures and trying to do more with less are not uncommon. But while trying to seek a cost advantage, we often suffer cost increases due to the effects of burnout on performance, productivity, and turnover. What makes this more problematic in today's job market is that our most talented people have other choices.

Elements of the Downward Spiral

Stress in the workplace is multiply caused. It's not all in our head, although the way we perceive and interpret our experience (cognitive appraisal) plays an important role. But the social-organizational environment plays a role too: Is there a spirit of optimism, energy, and success? Is there a feeling of vital engagement? Is it a place where our supervisor and our colleagues care about us, support us, encourage our growth and development?

Strain is physical deterioration induced by constant stress and overwork. When stress becomes chronic, it wears us down mentally, emotionally, and physically. We may find that our patterns sleep, exercise, leisure activities, and diet change for the worse. As a result, we become less effective, efficient, and productive. It shows in our performance and in our attitudes toward others. We may become more cynical about work and stakeholders.

Burnout is depletion. At this point, we are emotionally exhausted. Our sense of vital engagement with the organization is at a very low ebb. Our stores of hope, confidence, and resilience are long gone. It’s no longer a condition that can be cured with a long weekend or a pep talk. Work demands that used to be a source of challenge, activating best efforts and spawning creative solutions are now mere burdens. We’re just making it through the day.

Engagement as the Opposite of Burnout

Engagement can be defined as the opposite of burnout: high energy, strong involvement, and a sense of person/professional efficacy. It has also been defined as "a persistent, positive affective-motivational state of fulfillment that is characterized by the three components of vigor, dedication, and absorption." And much of it depends on the supervisory relationship.

Building engagement is one of the best approaches to preventing burnout. It's a primary prevention strategy. It builds coping resources and resilience, and it rewards skill in using them to make adaptive interventions and change, especially among supervisors and leaders. As a result, people have reason to believe that problems can and will be addressed.

Defining a Healthy Workplace

It's not surprising that a healthy workplace is usually associated with high engagement scores. If you can keep your eye on these six factors, you will be a very attractive employer even in today's market:

  1. Sustainable workload - notice when it becomes a strain (you may see it before they do)
  2. Choice and control - any professional work wants autonomy, freedom to make choices
  3. Recognition and reward - let others know personally that they're seen and appreciated
  4. Supportive work community - intervene on "bad" behaviors and reward teamwork
  5. Fairness, respect, and social justice - the appearance of favoritism screams unfairness
  6. Clear values and meaningful work - ensure fidelity to values in your words & actions

What People Really Want

Feeling noticed, included, and having a fair "shot" at advancing and developing is important, especially for early-career people. If they perceive that there are favorites, an in-group and an out-group, they'll feel unfairly treated. The capacity of supervisors/leaders to let people know where they stand in open, honest two-way communications is critical.

Some supervisors and leaders inadvertently send a rejecting message by not communicating on these matters as clearly and regularly as they should. Demonstrated, good-faith efforts to provide feedback and ongoing coaching tells people they do have a shot. And it positions management to more accurately appraise the potential of their people.

NOTE: I've drawn upon the work of Christina Maslach, University of California, Berkely in this article, especially "Finding Solutions to The Problem of Burnout" in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2017, Volume 69, Number 2, 143-152.