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Employee wellbeing challenges: Addressing burnout and stress

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Whether onsite or remote, today’s workplaces involve deadlines, pressure to perform, heightened competition and the expectation of constant connectivity, which can create fertile ground for employee stress.

One common result of workplace stress is the occupational phenomenon known as workplace burnout, which is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional efficacy. Burnout can be found in every industry and can undermine the mental health of any worker, from an intern to a senior executive. For this reason, implementing strategies to help promote employee stress relief in the office is of great importance.

Burnout is Increasing

A recent CNBC survey found that employee burnout is at an all-time high, with 42 percent of respondents saying they are burned out. Women and younger workers also reported stress at higher levels than other employees.

Factors that may contribute to the escalation of burnout include heavy workloads, unrealistic expectations and blurred boundaries between work and personal life, all of which can be exacerbated by advancements in technology that may prevent workers from ever going completely off the clock.

The pervasive nature of digital communication and global partnerships means that employees may be expected to be available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, which can lead to chronic stress. Adding to these employee mental health stressors, the COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented new challenges, including remote work arrangements, social isolation and economic uncertainty, further amplifying the prevalence of burnout.

Significant Risks to Organizational Performance

Burnout not only takes a toll on individual well-being but also poses significant risks to team performance and organizational success. Employees experiencing burnout are more likely to disengage, produce low-quality work and suffer from higher rates of absenteeism, all of which have a negative impact on productivity and profitability. Moreover, burnout can lead to a domino effect within organizations, affecting group dynamics, team morale and employee retention rates.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that workplace burnout increases the likelihood of absenteeism, job dissatisfaction, presenteeism and the phenomenon known as quiet quitting.

Workplace burnout can also have an expensive impact on company health costs. That same APA study found that employees with burnout are 57 percent more likely to miss more than two weeks of work and 180 percent more likely to have digestive disorders. Over time, stressed employees are 84 percent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and they have a 40 percent increased risk of hypertension.

Employee Wellbeing as a Strategic Imperative

Recognizing the detrimental impact of burnout on job satisfaction, engagement and productivity, many organizations are increasingly prioritizing employee mental health and well-being as a strategic imperative. By addressing the root causes of burnout and implementing targeted interventions, organizations can create a more supportive work environment where employees thrive, innovation flourishes, health impacts are mitigated and organizational success is sustained.

Prioritizing employee well-being is essential for fostering a positive work environment where individuals can thrive both personally and professionally. When employees experience workplace burnout, they are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue. This can not only diminish their ability to perform but can also impact their overall quality of life.

Implications for Organizational Success

Workplace stress and employee burnout can have profound implications for organizational success. Employees who are burnt out no longer think of the company’s goals as their own. They may not see the point of going the extra mile for a colleague, team leader or customer; their formerly sharp eye for spotting quality problems may be gone, and they may not feel obliged to worry about the effects of loses or waste on the bottom line.

A disengaged, unmotivated mental state directly impacts productivity, efficiency and work results. High levels of workplace burnout can also contribute to increased turnover as employees seek a better work-life balance or stronger support for their well-being.

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Benefits of Reducing Workplace Stress and Employee Burnout

Organizations that prioritize employee well-being can cultivate numerous benefits to employees and the organization as a whole. Engaged and satisfied employees are more likely to go above and beyond in their roles, leading to higher levels of innovation, creativity and customer satisfaction. Organizations that provide mental health resources or otherwise invest in their employees’ well-being tend to enjoy lower turnover rates and higher levels of employee loyalty. This can have the effect of reducing recruitment and training costs while fostering a positive reputation as an employer of choice.

Addressing workplace stress and employee burnout is not only a moral imperative but also a strategic one. By creating a culture that values and supports employee well-being, organizations can cultivate a happier, healthier and more productive workforce, contributing to sustained success and a competitive advantage in the long run.

Now, let’s examine some of the most common causes of workplace stress and employee burnout, along with a few strategies for reducing stress and preventing burnout. We will review the steps to implementing stress management initiatives in the workplace and how companies can use these initiatives to help enhance employee mental health and well-being.

Understanding Workplace Burnout and Stress

In its International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization (WHO) refers to employee burnout as an occupational phenomenon characterized by feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance, reduced professional efficacy and job-related negativity or cynicism.

Workplace stress includes diverse forms of emotional, physical and psychological strain experienced by individuals due to the demands and pressures of their jobs. Workplace stress may manifest in irritability, anxiety, exhaustion, withdrawal or physical illness. While some levels of stress are normal and even beneficial for employee performance, excessive or prolonged stress will eventually produce the opposite effects, leading to workplace burnout.

Burnout often develops gradually over time, as individuals grapple with persistent work-related stressors without adequate support or coping mechanisms. Burnout can have profound implications for both the individual and the organization, as it can lead to decreased job satisfaction, diminished performance and negative health outcomes.

Below are some of the factors that can contribute to workplace stress and employee burnout:

  • Workload: Excessive work demands, unrealistic deadlines and conflicting responsibilities may leave employees feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up.
  • Lack of Control: A lack of autonomy or input in decision-making processes may cause feelings of frustration and helplessness, leading to increased stress.
  • Work-life Imbalance: In an interconnected world, the boundary between work and personal life is often blurred, making it difficult for employees to disconnect from the job, fulfill family obligations and recharge outside of work hours.
  • Social Isolation: The emotional well-being of remote workers may be undermined by a lack of in-person interaction with colleagues and feedback from leaders. Zoom meetings have their place, but without in-person interaction, it can be difficult for remote workers to develop a sense of community and team spirit.
  • Organizational Culture: A toxic work environment characterized by a lack of integrity, harassment, micromanagement or lack of support can quickly contribute to increased stress and eventual burnout.
  • Job Insecurity: Concerns about job stability, layoffs or potential reorganizations can create significant stress and anxiety for employees, which can impact their well-being and job performance.

Recognizing these underlying causes and implementing strategies to address them is essential for preventing and mitigating workplace stress and employee burnout. By fostering a supportive and positive work environment, promoting work-life balance and empowering employees with the resources and tools they need to manage stress effectively, organizations can create a healthier, more resilient workplace.

The Impact of Stress on Employee Performance

Stress can significantly impair an employee’s ability to function effectively in their role. A stressed employee may have trouble with concentration, poor memory or emotional decision-making, leading to diminished productivity and lost efficiency. Tasks that would typically be manageable may become overwhelming, resulting in missed deadlines and subpar quality of work. Moreover, prolonged exposure to stress can erode motivation and enthusiasm, further diminishing both engagement and job performance over time.

Stress can also take a toll on physical and mental health. Chronic stress has been linked to a myriad of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, weakened immune function and musculoskeletal pain. Workplace stress can exacerbate preexisting conditions and increase the risk of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Over time, these health consequences may lead to increased absenteeism, presenteeism (being present at work but not fully functional) and higher health care costs for both employees and the organization.

A Downward Spiral of Declining Health and Performance

The interplay between workplace stress and resulting health impacts can create a vicious cycle. Physical symptoms of stress, such as fatigue and headaches, may further exacerbate stress levels, leading to a downward spiral of declining health and performance. Left unaddressed, this cycle can have far-reaching consequences for both the individual and the organization, impacting morale, retention and overall organizational effectiveness.

Identifying Signs of Stress and Burnout

A concerted effort by the human resources team to identify signs of workplace stress and employee burnout is essential in providing proactive intervention and support. While these signs may vary from individual to individual, there are some common indicators that managers and colleagues can watch for. These include:

  • Physical and Mental Health Issues: Chronic stress and burnout can take a toll on both physical and mental health. Team leaders should look for signs of anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders, as well as symptoms of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, headaches, fatigue, insomnia or muscle tension.
  • Behavioral Changes: Pay attention to changes in behavior or personality, such as becoming more withdrawn, irritable or emotionally volatile. Employees may also exhibit signs of anxiety or depression, such as mood swings or social withdrawal.
  • Emotional Exhaustion: Workplace burnout can also lead to emotional exhaustion, characterized by feelings of cynicism, detachment and irritability. Employees may become increasingly pessimistic, displaying a lack of enthusiasm for their work, making cynical remarks and withdrawing from social interactions.
  • Decreased Performance: Workplace burnout can significantly impact job performance, contributing to errors, omissions and missed deadlines. Employees may struggle to concentrate, make decisions or complete tasks efficiently despite their best efforts to remain productive.
  • Increased Absenteeism: Employees experiencing burnout may frequently call in sick or take unplanned days off, citing vague reasons such as feeling “unwell” or “overwhelmed.” While occasional absences are normal, a pattern of increased absenteeism may indicate underlying stress or burnout.
  • Decreased Engagement: Workplace burnout can lead to disengagement from work and a loss of motivation. Employees may seem apathetic or indifferent toward their responsibilities, show little interest in professional development opportunities or disengage from team meetings.

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Cultural and Organizational Barriers

Addressing workplace stress and employee burnout requires a proactive effort from both HR professionals and co-workers who may interact with an individual affected by stress. However, several cultural and organizational barriers may impede progress in effectively tackling these issues.

  • Stigma and Silence: In many workplace cultures, there can be a stigma associated with discussing mental health and personal struggles. Employees may fear being perceived as weak or incompetent if they admit to experiencing stress or burnout. As a result, they may suffer in silence, reluctant to seek help or disclose their struggles to managers or colleagues.
  • High-Performance Cultures: When organizations prioritize productivity and achievement above all else, they may inadvertently contribute to the prevalence of stress and burnout. In these high-pressure environments, employees may feel compelled to work long hours, take on excessive workloads and sacrifice their well-being for the sake of meeting targets or deadlines.
  • Lack of Supportive Leadership: Leadership plays a crucial role in shaping organizational culture and setting the tone for how stress and burnout are addressed. If leaders fail to prioritize mental health or to demonstrate empathy and understanding toward employees’ struggles, it can create a culture where stress is normalized and workplace burnout is disregarded.
  • Limited Resources and Accessibility: Some organizations may lack the resources or infrastructure necessary to effectively support employee well-being initiatives. These limitations may include inadequate mental health resources, limited access to flexible work arrangements or insufficient training for managers on how to recognize and address signs of employee burnout.
  • Resistance to Change: Addressing workplace stress and burnout often requires organizational changes, such as implementing policies to promote a better work-life balance, fostering a culture of psychological safety or investing in employee wellness programs. However, resistance to change from entrenched systems, processes or stakeholders can hinder progress and perpetuate existing barriers.
  • Perception of Cost vs. Investment: Some organizations may view initiatives aimed at addressing workplace stress and burnout as costly expenses rather than strategic investments in their most valuable asset: their employees. This short-sighted perspective may prevent organizations from allocating adequate resources and attention to employee well-being initiatives.

Overcoming cultural and organizational barriers requires a shift in mindset, leadership commitment and a willingness to prioritize employee mental health as a strategic imperative. By fostering open dialogue, promoting supportive leadership and investing in resources and initiatives designed to address workplace stress management, organizations can help create healthier, more resilient workplaces where employees can thrive.

Lack of Awareness or Prioritization

A lack of awareness or prioritization of employee mental health is a pervasive issue in many workplaces, with far-reaching consequences for the organization and its employees.

One of the primary reasons for this lack of awareness is the historical emphasis on productivity and performance metrics over employee well-being. In traditional workplace cultures, success has often been measured solely by output, with little consideration given to the health and happiness of employees. As a result, issues such as stress, burnout and mental health have been overlooked or dismissed as inconsequential in comparison to achieving business objectives.

The Link Between Well-Being and Success

Some organizations do not understand or acknowledge the link between employee well-being and organizational success, and some leaders may view well-being initiatives as optional perks rather than strategic investments in workforce resilience and performance. This mindset can prevent organizations from allocating resources and attention to initiatives aimed at promoting employee well-being, perpetuating a cycle of employer neglect and employee disengagement.

The Rugged Individual

Another contributing factor to the lack of prioritization of employee well-being is the misconception that addressing these issues is solely the responsibility of the individual. While personal resilience and coping strategies are certainly important, they cannot mitigate systemic factors contributing to workplace stress and burnout. In cases such as these, organizations must take proactive steps to provide resources and create a supportive and positive work environment.

Remote Work and Burnout

Remote work offers flexibility and autonomy, but it also presents unique challenges that can contribute to workplace stress and employee burnout. Perhaps the most significant challenge is the loss of a clear boundary between work and personal life. Without the physical separation of a traditional office, remote workers may find it difficult to disconnect, causing them to work longer hours and spend less time relaxing and recharging. Without a policy intended to promote work-life balance, the constant proximity to work can contribute to chronic stress and eventual burnout.

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Strategies for Preventing and Mitigating Workplace Stress and Employee Burnout

Create a Supportive Organizational Culture

While every organization is different, successful strategies for addressing stress and burnout start with creating a supportive organizational culture. This can be accomplished through promoting healthy work-life balance, encouraging open communication and fostering a sense of belonging.

Promote a Healthy Work-Life Balance

A healthy work-life balance is essential for effectively managing personal and professional responsibilities without feeling overwhelmed or burnt out. Organizations can help employees achieve this by implementing policies that support flexible work arrangements, such as remote work options, flexible hours or compressed work weeks.

Additionally, leaders can model healthy work-life balance behaviors by respecting boundaries, encouraging employees to take breaks and discouraging overwork. By prioritizing work-life balance, organizations can demonstrate their commitment to supporting the holistic well-being of their employees, ultimately cultivating a healthier and more engaged workforce.

Encourage Open Communication

Open communication and frequent feedback help create a culture of transparency, trust and psychological safety where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns and ideas. Organizations can achieve this by providing regular opportunities for one-on-one meetings, team discussions and anonymous feedback channels.

Leaders should actively listen to employee feedback, address concerns promptly and involve employees in decision-making processes whenever possible. By fostering open communication, organizations can identify and address sources of stress and dissatisfaction before they escalate.

Foster a Sense of Belonging

A sense of community and belonging is essential for building a culture in which employees feel valued, connected and supported. Organizations can work to achieve this through team-building activities, social events and recognition programs that celebrate individual and team achievements.

Leaders should also actively promote diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to help all employees feel welcomed and respected. By building a community and fostering a sense of belonging, organizations can create employee relationships, enhance collaboration and build a positive work environment.

Provide Resources and Support for Employees

Organizations can help support employee stress management and resilience by implementing employee assistance programs, offering mental health resources and providing flexible work arrangements.

Employee Assistance Programs

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) typically offer confidential counseling services, financial or legal assistance and referrals to additional resources such as childcare or eldercare support. By providing access to professional support and guidance, EAPs can help employees navigate difficult situations and cope with stressors effectively.

EAPs can also provide proactive interventions, such as workshops on stress management and work-life balance, to help employees develop coping strategies and resilience skills.

Mental Health Resources and Training

Access to mental health resources and training is essential for creating an environment where employees feel comfortable addressing mental health concerns. Organizations may provide mental health resources ranging from online self-help tools to educational materials to mental health hotlines.

Mental health training for managers and employees can also help raise awareness, reduce stigma and equip individuals with the skills and knowledge to recognize signs of distress and provide appropriate support for other employees’ mental health. Training may cover topics such as stress management techniques, active listening skills and strategies for promoting psychological well-being.

Flexible Work Arrangements

By providing flexible work arrangements, employers can allow their workers to better balance their professional and personal responsibilities, contributing to reduced employee stress. Flexible work arrangements may include options such as telecommuting, flexible hours, compressed workweeks or job sharing.

By accommodating diverse needs and preferences, flexible work arrangements can empower employees to create work schedules that align with their family obligations or other circumstances. They can also demonstrate trust and respect for employees’ autonomy, helping to promote a culture of work-life balance throughout the organization.

Promote Self-Care and Resilience

Promoting self-care and resilience is essential for building a healthy and thriving workforce. Tactics for implementing this strategy could include offering stress management workshops, encouraging regular breaks and prioritizing physical health and wellness initiatives.

Stress Management Workshops

Stress management workshops and training can provide employees with the knowledge, skills and tools needed to effectively manage stress and build resilience in the face of challenges. These workshops may cover topics such as identifying sources of stress, practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, setting boundaries and developing healthy coping mechanisms.

Regular Breaks and Time Off

Encouraging regular breaks and time off is crucial for promoting work-life balance and preventing burnout. Employees who take regular breaks throughout the day are more likely to feel refreshed, focused and productive.

Organizations can encourage breaks by providing dedicated break areas, promoting the use of vacation days and paid time off and discouraging overworking. By prioritizing rest and renewal as desirable worker behaviors, organizations can show their commitment to improving employee well-being.

Health and Wellness Initiatives

Physical health and wellness initiatives can also help employees maintain their overall well-being. These initiatives may include onsite fitness facilities, wellness challenges, nutrition education, cooking or yoga classes and access to group health care resources. Organizations can also promote physical activity and movement throughout the workday by encouraging walking meetings, standing desks and fitness breaks.

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Four Keys to Successful Well-Being Initiatives

No matter which initiatives are emphasized in an organization’s well-being and stress management strategy, here are four keys steps that can help in creating a successful program.

Assess the Current State of Employee Well-Being

How does an organization know that a new strategy for stress management is focused on the right objectives? Before implementing well-being initiatives, it is essential to assess the current state of employee well-being within the organization.

An assessment may involve conducting blind surveys, focus groups or interviews to gather data on employee perceptions, experiences and needs related to well-being. By understanding the specific stressors, challenges and areas of opportunity, organizations can better tailor their well-being initiatives to address the most pressing concerns of employees.

Document a Comprehensive Well-Being Strategy

Based on the findings from the assessment, organizations should document a comprehensive well-being strategy that outlines their goals, objectives and action plans for promoting employee well-being. This strategy should encompass a wide range of initiatives targeting various aspects of well-being, including physical, mental, emotional and social.

As elements of the strategy are documented, they should be shared with managers and employees to get buy-in and support from leadership and stakeholders, as well as to ensure alignment with the organization’s values, culture and business objectives.

Engage Employees in the Process and Solicit Feedback

Employee engagement is critical to the success of planned wellness programs. Organizations should involve employees in the planning, implementation and evaluation of well-being initiatives to ensure they meet real needs and preferences.

Encourage employees to participate in a well-being committee or task force comprising representatives from different departments or levels of the organization. As initiatives are developed, the HR team should regularly solicit feedback to gauge satisfaction with the strategy, understand employee preferences and identify areas for improvement.

Monitor and Evaluate the Effectiveness of Each Initiative

Once a well-being strategy is implemented, the HR team needs mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating its effectiveness over time. This may involve tracking key metrics like employee engagement, absenteeism, turnover rates and productivity levels.

In addition, the organization should conduct regular surveys to assess the impact of individual initiatives. By monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of well-being initiatives, organizations can make more informed decisions when it is time to reallocate resources or refine the overall strategy.

Valued, Supported and Empowered to Thrive

To effectively support employee well-being, organizations must prioritize proactive measures aimed at prevention, intervention and support. As we have discussed, key strategies include promoting work-life balance, fostering a culture of open communication and feedback, providing support such as employee assistance programs and mental health resources, offering flexible work arrangements and prioritizing health and wellness initiatives. By implementing these strategies, organizations can help create a supportive work environment where employees feel valued, supported and empowered to thrive.

By taking proactive steps to address workplace stress and employee burnout, any organization, no matter how large or small, can help create a healthier, happier and more productive workplace. Whether your organization needs help creating a wellness-minded benefits package, developing a company culture that’s focused on employee well-being or anything in between, Higginbotham can help. Talk to one of our employee benefits or HR specialists today.

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