Aug 6, 2023

What Is Workplace Burnout and How to Manage Stress in the Workplace in 2023?

Unlike other mental health issues, burnout can be directly linked to work. Veronique Bergeot explains how to prevent it. According to a recent study by the World Health Organisation, overwork and burnout contributed to more than 745,000 deaths in a year, as reported in Psychology Today.

Healthcare professionals report a 20% increase in antidepressants usage since the beginning of the second lockdown. 

Because of work uncertainties, life restrictions, and lack of leisure, a more significant part of the population than usual is under pressure. Exposure to high stress for an extended period could have long-lasting side effects known as burnout.

More than ever, managing employees' stress will become critical for companies in the next few months. After a long period of inactivity, companies will demand even more from their employees. As a result, maintaining a healthy and positive workplace to prevent absences will be a crucial challenge for HR managers. 

This can be harder to identify among remote employees. Driving a healthy work-life balance and monitoring employee wellbeing can be challenging. The company culture can cause this, positively or negatively. 

However, with a better understanding of stress, its roots and its symptoms, empathetic HR managers can support their workforce with a too high level of stress and prevent employee burnout.

The management team should communicate internally as soon as possible about employee burnout-specifically, its symptoms, consequences and the existing solutions to curate it. For example, sophrology, a non-invasive technique reconciling the body and the mind, gives fantastic results to reduce employees' stress.

What is Burnout?

‍Burnout and stress are often used for one another though they encompass different meanings. So, what is the difference between stress and burnout?

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion linked to a deterioration in a person's relationship with their environment.

Burnout finds its origin in stress. Of course, everyone has suffered a bit of pressure from time to time. On the other hand, burnout can develop into a lifetime problem. Therefore, it is crucial to identify it early and fight its symptoms as soon as possible.

The below diagram unfolds every step leading to burnout.

The three main phases leading to burnout 

A person affected by burnout has gone through a long process of reactions that unfolds in 3 main phases.

Phase 1: The alarm phase

‍The adrenal glands produce adrenaline, a hormone responsible for stress, as a physical or psychological "aggression" response. Although adrenaline stays in the body for a few hours, the human body naturally supports this stress phase. This mechanism sparks intellectual stimulation and allows you to be particularly productive.

Phase 2: The resistance phase

‍For people reaching this phase, stress begins to set in over time. Stress occurs more frequently and for a longer time, typical of chronic stress. Because of these energy-consuming alarms, the immune systems of people experiencing this phase becomes more fragile and sensitive to bacteria and viruses. Anyone undergoing this phase of stress must react immediately to avoid exhaustion.

The main criteria in the resistance phase:

1. Feeling overworked (fatigue, sleeping troubles, irritability, lack of patience, anxiety, pain or migraine) 

2. Disorders and symptoms last for more than six months 

3. Feeling tired and exhausted throughout the day.

Some patients endure hypostress, a state where they might not feel solicited or stimulated enough. Some patients can even feel useless, idle, losing their motivations and desires. Boredom overwhelms their life, an agonising situation. The brain considers itself endangered. Hypostress is as devastating as hyperstress (see below) and can lead to "bore-out" - a syndrome of exhaustion through boredom.

Some others undergo hyperstress, a very high level of stress linked to stimuli exceeding patients' intrinsic physical or psychological capacity. This type of stress can lead to a nervous breakdown, workplace burnout and cardiovascular accidents putting the patients' health at risk. During this phase, patients go further and further into the resistance phase. For example, patients enduring hyperstress never rest, bring work at home overnight despite overly-long working days, and never go on holiday. In short, they push the engine.

Phase 3: The exhaustion phase (or burnout)

‍This is the red line. At this stage, patients have exhausted all of their coping skills to face the sources of workplace stress.

In this phase, a phenomenon of denial appears because the mind, still in the resistance phase, produces thoughts such as: "I will rest later", "I do not have time for this or because of that", "I must", "I cannot do otherwise ", amongst others.

Unfortunately, when the battery has run flat (Yes, as if you were a cell phone that had not been charged), the body stops responding. It gives up! The adrenal glands no longer produce cortisol, a hormone responsible for keeping you alert, awake, and active. By blocking the production of certain hormones, the body says STOP! In other words, the body takes control back to save your life.

That's why many patients having burnout collapse or feel paralysed.

On average, it takes twelve months for the body to produce back these hormones that provide patients what it takes to get better!

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What are the signs of burnout?

‍There are numerous employee burnout signs. But to give a few examples and understand how it affects each part of our being, we will define the symptoms through the following categories:

1. Physical manifestations: physical pain, headaches, eating disorders, dizziness, sleep disturbances, chronic insomnia on nocturnal awakenings or non-restful hypersomnia.

2. Emotional manifestations: feeling stress, anxiety, anguish, irritability, lack of patience, ruminations (the hamster in our head), negative and devaluing ideas, guilt. Notice that these feelings are poles apart from what people usually urge people suffering from burnout to do: to stay stronger, to look perfect, to make more effort, not to be self-centred.

3. Cognitive manifestations include a lack of concentration and attention and memory problems. So someone who has burnout drags himself along.

4. Interpersonal manifestations: feeling isolated, emotional problems, getting easily angry, flaring up for no reason at all, being doubtful, feeling guilty, no longer feeling on a par with others, devaluing oneself, telling oneself that one can't manage anymore" and that one "won't hold out for long".

Sophrology against stress and burnout

‍Very popular in countries like France, Belgium, and Switzerland, Sophrology is known as one of the most efficient non-invasive therapy against burnout. Using relaxation, meditation, and interactive exercises, Sophrology brings back harmony between a patient's body and mind by recreating a feeling of overall balance.

One of the starting points of Sophrology is to reconnect our brain with our body and its sensations. Above all, Sophrology enables the mind to calm down. Because when stress is prevalent and overwhelming in the workplace, we progressively disconnect our brain from our body and its environment, cutting off all our sensations, in a sort of mental apnea.

Sophrology aims to positively energise our senses and perceptions of ourselves and our environment. It allows patients to take a step back, learn to let go, and be more positive. Sophrology works in reducing uncontrollable thoughts with more positive ones. The positive brings the positive; the negative leads to the negative.

By adopting these relaxation reflexes, both physical and mental, patients using Sophrology manage to reduce their stress and prevent employee burnout.

Research has proven that practising Sophrology regularly: 

  • allows physical and mental recovery. 
  • enables emotional tension, anxiety and stress overcoming. 
  • restores and strengthens self-confidence and optimism.

Preventing burnout in remote workers

HR leaders should flag work stress across all teams but may apply different tactics in a remote working environment. Ongoing pulse surveys, one-on-one meetings with managers, or HR check-ins can help identify a team member at risk, especially since physical signs can be less noticeable. Managers should aim to create a positive employee experience, measure employee engagement, encourage regular breaks, and monitor workload and productivity to understand stress levels. The workplace culture you make will set the tone and help employees in need.

Test your burnout level!

‍The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, created in 2005, is the most widely used test globally. It assesses the three dimensions of burnout: personal exhaustion, burnout and relationship exhaustion.

Although the results of these tests are not medical diagnoses, they allow a self-assessment of you or your employee level of emotional exhaustion. If your levels are high, I recommend you consult a professional as soon as possible.

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