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Can you recognise stress and burnout in your workplace?


Stress is an essential part of our everyday lives and well-managed stress is healthy, motivating and drives performance. It raises our cortisol levels (stress hormone) to help us take action and then fall again quickly when the moment is over. Stress becomes unhealthy when it is constant and beyond the control of individuals, such as excessive workloads, poor management practices and expectations beyond peoples physical, mental or resilience boundaries. Our cortisol levels remain elevated.

There is a growing trend, even before the Covid 19 pandemic affected the whole world, of over work and is symptomatic of an “always on” work culture and has a corresponding rise in workplace stress. The constant bombardment of emails, expectations of instant replies, blurring of work hours especially with the flexibility of working from home, creates a 24/7 “availability culture” and harder to disconnect from work. Coupled with a growing use of digital media, technology and social media, can soon get out of hand and it becomes difficult for some to switch off completely, regulate time on devices and the “fear of missing out”.

Challenging situations such as the uncertainty of Covid 19, when there is no defined date that life can return to some normality or understanding what the overall local and global consequences will be, can grind down even the most resilient leaders. The hope we are clinging on to seems to stay constantly out of reach. Overwhelm can occur and we feel helpless.

It is a good time to remind ourselves who we are responsible for….and that is ourselves. Shock horror……

As leaders if we can’t recognise how we are doing ourselves, acknowledge it, and take action early, even though it may make us feel vulnerable, we not only put ourselves at risk but also those who look to us for guidance, support and feeling safe and secure. Vulnerability is actually a strength, it enables us to answer honestly when asked “how are you feeling emotionally”

We are the Captain of our own Ship and if we don’t pay attention to all the elements that keep the ship safely afloat, we can find ourselves off course, bobbing up and down on the waves floating in one place, or a sinking feeling like we’ve got a leak and taking on water, for example.

When we are feeling stressed, surrounded by peers or our managers who are stressed and those we lead. It can be very difficult to go about our day with autonomy, being aware of our personal strengths and weaknesses, of factors that can and cannot be controlled and of positive and negative social forces.

“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship”

Louisa May Alcott

What are the negative effective effects of stress

Relationships - Unchecked workplace stress can affect our relationships, both at work and home. It reduces our ability to connect and be present with people or focus on others.

Health - when we’re overloaded, it is not uncommon to make unhealthier choices, such as not eating properly, drinking too much alcohol or using other “stimulants”, not exercising. Our sleep patterns can also get disrupted, making us tired and increasing our cravings for sugar for example. Making us irritable with our partners or work colleagues. Cortisol levels remain elevated putting stress on systems within our body.

Burnout - this is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion and is caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands. In the workplace it can lead to feeling unmotivated and losing interest in the job at hand and all the joy of the role you had. It makes us more vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu.

Thinking about Covid19 after the initial adjustments to workplaces and work practices, most settled into new routines. Frontline workers, particularly healthcare, eager to do what is necessarily to sustain life and provide comfort and support when required. But as time and severity progresses and second and third waves emerge, many have not had the opportunity to really have “time off” physically, mentally or emotionally for many many months and the symptoms of burn-out are starting to emerge. It is a gradual process, the signs are subtle at first but become worse as time goes on.

Signs and Symptoms of Burn-out

It is important to recognise in yourself and those around you the “red flags”, the early symptoms that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. If you pay attention and actively reduce your stress, you can prevent a major breakdown.

Recognising the difference between Stress and burn-out

Other factors that lead to burn-out

Time to hit pause and change direction

If you recognise any of the symptoms in yourself of impending burn-out or you’re already experiencing it, it is time to learn how to overcome burn-out and feel positive and healthy again.

Recognise - Watch for the warning signs in yourself and others

Reverse - Seek support to manage stress before it becomes chronic and burn-out occurs

Resilience - Build resilience by taking care of your physical and emotional health

Reframe the way you look at your work

  1. Find the value in your work - Focus on the aspects of your job that you do enjoy, it might just be chatting with people at lunch, how your role helps others. Changing your attitude towards your job can help you regain a sense of purpose and control.