How to Identify and Manage Stress and Burnout

How to Identify and Manage Stress and Burnout

According to the latest statistics from the HSE, in 2017/18 work related stress accounted for 44% of work related ill health, up from 35% just three years earlier, and 57% of all working days lost to sickness, up from 43% three years earlier; 15.4 million days were lost to depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders, costing the economy £15 billion in the UK.

Absence due to stress is now the second most cited cause, even though many employees still won’t admit that they are suffering from stress or mental health issues, and will ask their GPs to be signed off with some mystery illness, such as stomach problems or ‘flu like symptoms.  Therefore, sickness absence figures due to stress are often inaccurate, may be even higher, and mask the real issues.  A recent survey by ACAS on 2,000 employees found that two-thirds had felt stressed or anxious about work in the last year; a survey of 1,500 employees in SMEs found that 23% would prefer not to explain an absence from work rather than talk about mental health issues, despite 14% of absences being due to issues with stress and mental health.

So, it’s no wonder that many organizations are investing more in the health and well-being of their employees.  However, often line managers fail to identify stress either in themselves or in their team members, or fail to deal with the signs early on.  This can result in cases of burnout where individuals experience mental exhaustion with possible feelings of resentment and aggression towards the employer or colleagues.  Sometimes GPs will misdiagnose burnout (or executive stress and nervous exhaustion) as depression when in fact the individual may be suffering from chronic fatigue and insomnia as a result of overworking and may need total rest.

Causes of Stress in the Workplace

The main cause of stress in the workplace is said to be the inability to cope with a high workload, with other causes listed as:

  • Trying to manage a work-life balance
  • Coping with a challenging manager
  • Worrying about invisible pressure
  • Increase in responsibility
  • Lack of support from management
  • Poor working relationships
  • Email overload
  • Inability to cope with change of manager, owner, location
  • Inability to cope with uncertainty over job security
  • Lack of feedback on job performance
  • Feelings of being undervalued or undermined
  • Lack of clarity around the job role
  • Lack of ownership of key tasks and decisions
  • Little or no Training and Development

Behaviour Change as a Result of Stress

Stress is complex and may manifest itself in many different ways which makes it difficult to identify.  Workers may display changes in behaviours such as:

  • Become aggressive and confrontational, or withdrawn and isolated
  • Arrive late and leave early
  • Take long breaks, or no breaks
  • Lack concentration or attention to detail
  • Lose weight, or put on weight
  • Have muscle tension and headaches
  • Experience digestive problems
  • Cry a lot
  • Become ill regularly as their immune system becomes compromised
  • Smile less
  • Talk negatively and appear pessimistic
  • Be disruptive

The Results of Stress on Performance

Stress in the workplace may lead to the following overall effects on performance:

  • Increased sickness absence figures
  • Increase in number of errors
  • More interpersonal conflict and breakdown in working relationships
  • Drop in overall quality
  • Decrease in customer service standards
  • Low engagement
  • Drop in productivity
  • Increase in grievances
  • Increase in employee turnover

Resilience Training and Coaching

Many organizations admit they don’t have a policy for identifying or dealing with employee stress with not even simple questionnaires to identify stress levels, nor a structured approach to dealing with the impact on an individual, team or the organization. Without a strategy to identify, record, monitor or address stress-related incidents or illness, organizations are unable to tackle the real issues and improve sickness absence and attrition rates.

Resilience Training and Coaching can help to prevent stress at work, significantly reduce associated sickness absence rates, and can achieve excellent ROI.  However individuals can also take responsibility for their own health and well-being and create a work life balance by asking themselves questions such as:

  • How am I feeling – both physically and mentally? How am I enjoying work on a scale of 1 – 10 with 10 being excellent.
  • What’s wrong or missing?
  • How are my family and/or friends reacting?
  • What can I do to improve and move my score nearer to 10?

Making the small changes to work and personal life and modifying behaviours can make a big difference to health and well-being, such as getting up 20 minutes earlier to avoid racing to work and getting caught up in traffic, or limiting or even giving up caffeine, which can aggravate stress symptoms and can cause insomnia, nervousness and restlessness, stomach irritation, nausea and increased heart rate.  Not taking regular breaks and holidays is counter-productive and not sustainable over a number of years as it can lead to stress, loss in productivity and ultimately burnout.


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