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Psychologist explains how to avoid work’s hidden burnout crisis

Mental distress in the global workforce has never been higher with the onset of the pandemic and job insecurity. Dr Karen Morley explains the real causes of burnout and how to reduce your anxiety in today’s climate.

Work Burnout

There’s no question that COVID-19 has increased the level of anxiety and burnout in our lives. UK research showed that levels of distress in the community doubled in 2020. The rate of mental distress in the Australian community was 2.5 times the rate prior to the pandemic. The impact in the US was higher still, with an increase of more than 40 per cent of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression.

As well as the confusion and disruption of the pandemic and the health and social uncertainties we continue to face, work too has become a source of uncertainty and change.

A global study by Asana indicated that nearly eight in 10 knowledge workers in Australia and almost nine in 10 in the US were feeling burned out. They claim that a mere 29 per cent of time is spent on meaningful work and 13 per cent on forward-looking strategy – 58 per cent of their time is spent ‘working on work’. Working from home and hybrid work changes have resulted in longer working days, an increase in unnecessary meetings, duplication of work and a lack of clarity about tasks and roles.

In order to avoid a longer-term mental health crisis for your workforce, there are two practical courses of action you can take.

First, provide social support, as it will help reduce anxiety. Regularly check in with your team so that you know how they’re feeling; you can then work out how to best support them.

  1. Validate their feelings first and then help to reframe them. Listen to the person’s emotional experience and express your understanding. Help them to reframe negative experiences by exploring what might be positive in the future. People like to receive emotional support, but it’s not as helpful as cognitive support is.
  2. Avoid downward spirals. A good vent does have value in the very short-term; however, continuing to vent and getting caught up in mutual venting patterns has limited value. Change the focus: what can be done?
  3. Be accurate and facilitate, but don’t dominate the conversation. If people feel that they can tell the truth, that you understand them well and that they can regain a sense of control, they will more likely feel that they can manage their situation.
  4. Listen well. Show you are listening by maintaining eye contact and saying “mm-hmm”. One powerful way to show you are listening is to ask a follow-up question; for example, “What happened next?” This helps the person share their story.
  5. Be responsive, not dismissive. Show compassion and accept what people are saying, even if your own experience is different. Don’t ignore or invalidate their response. Social support is most helpful when it provides truth, so that the person better understands the situation and feels as if they can manage it.
  6. Celebrate the good things. Especially when times are tough, it helps to respond with real enthusiasm when someone shares some positive news. It amplifies their happiness and yours too.

Second, understand the causes of burnout and how you can reduce it. Burnout is essentially caused by a mismatch between the person and their job. There are six causes:

  • Excessive workload demands – too much to do, not enough time and inadequate resources or support.
  • Lacking control – unrealistic expectations, lack of communication and a lack of autonomy to make decisions.
  • Inadequate reward – lack of recognition, neglect, inadequate pay and a lack of pleasure in the work.
  • Lack of community – low social support and high conflict.
  • Lack of fairness – inequity, cheating and a lack of transparency.
  • Misalignment of values – values conflict and expectations are unethical.

To reduce burnout, acknowledge people’s achievements and make sure you do it fairly. Give workers the resources they need, set realistic work standards and prioritise clear communication about expectations. Allow a reasonable degree of autonomy. Foster civility and positive, supportive relationships among working groups. Keep people up to date on what’s going on in the organisation.

Feeling of stress, anxiety and worry accumulate and can become chronic, whether the causes are personal or work-related. Experience with previous crisis events indicates that there are likely to be long-term mental health impacts, and levels of worker burnout are already concerning. Don’t let the crisis take hold: prioritise social support, pay attention to chronic stress and proactively manage the causes of burnout.

Dr. Karen Morley is an Executive Coach, an authority on leadership coaching, and a thought leader on gender and inclusion.

Read next: How inclusion can become detrimental to your business

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