This time of year, it’s common to feel overwhelmed at work. Whether it’s the push to complete work projects by year-end or the desire to meet the unrealistic expectations that surround the holidays, stressors from personal and professional life can intersect, impacting employees’ productivity, motivation, and health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) now recognizes burnout as a syndrome. WHO says that burnout is an “occupational phenomenon,” which means it is directly attributable to job stress. Symptoms include a lack of energy, being mentally distant from the job, feeling cynical or negative about work, and being less productive. Burnout occurs when stress has existed over the long haul.
Sometimes, pressure can create an urgency that inspires productivity—like that burst of adrenaline that helps us power through deadlines. But when people continuously experience feeling overwhelmed at work, it takes a large toll on both our mental and physical states.
The statistics on burnout in the workplace are concerning, to say the least. A 2018 Gallup poll found 67 percent of employees feel burned out, with 44 percent feeling this at least sometimes and 23 percent feeling it very often or always.
It’s important to note that overwhelm can happen to high performing workers, too. One study found that 20 percent of engaged employees reported feeling burned out. Unsurprisingly, burnout contributes to turnover, absenteeism, and is estimated to cost U.S. businesses between $150 to $350 billion each year.
Work isn’t the only cause of stress. Americans experience pressure in their personal lives too, and that level is only increasing. We have the dubious honor of being the most stressed people in the world. Unrelenting stress and burnout can lead to physical and mental consequences, including insomnia, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
As if coping with the potential for chronic burnout and periodic stress wasn’t enough, here come the holidays. As employees try to balance end of the year professional responsibilities with increased personal obligations, what is intended to be a joyous season can instead be a dreaded time to endure.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Although leaders can’t control all factors that may lead to an employee feeling burned out or stressed, leaders can help employees make adjustments and develop skills to be resilient in the face of pressure.
In today’s world of work, companies rely on employees to be more creative, agile, collaborative, and productive than ever before. To do this, employees need to be physically and mentally healthy, but when they experience burnout or an overload of stress, everyone loses.
Leaders who want to encourage a culture of wellbeing must recognize the effect that unrelenting pressure plays, and take steps to address it.
Here are seven ways to start:
1. Recognize the signs of an employee being overwhelmed at work.
First and foremost, employees may not notice their own behavioral changes, so leaders should be aware of red flags. Increased absenteeism, tardiness, missed deadlines or decreased productivity can signal problems. Increased isolation, irritability, errors, health issues such as headaches, or uncharacteristic complaining are additional indications that an employee is struggling.
2. Check-in with employees periodically to gauge their workload and stress levels.
This can take place anytime, but a great time to do this is during your Weekly Check-Ins. Employees may worry that a discussion of any challenges may make the employees look as if they’re not capable, so it’s essential for leaders to make the effort to create a psychologically safe environment. This contributes to employees feeling supported enough to be transparent and vulnerable.
3. Allow scheduling flexibility, such as working from home.
This approach focuses on the end work product and gives employees more autonomy in managing their time. This can significantly reduce stress. Providing more latitude for taking care of responsibilities on their own time or in a different location also shows that your trust your employees.
When employees are given this flexibility, it can often alleviate stress in other aspects of their lives. For example, if an employee avoids the long commute into the office, they can then use that time to put towards their work and remain in a state of deeper focus for a longer period of time.
4. Give employees the recognition they deserve.
Appreciation and social support help employees to be more resilient so that they can handle the ever-increasing demands of business and avoid feeling overwhelmed at work. Don’t wait until it’s time for their next performance review, take the time to notice and praise employees’ concrete actions in real-time.
5. Review “Must-Do” lists with employees.
Even as a manager, you may not know every project your employee is working on, so you could be assigning more than they can handle. And as a high-performing employee, they may not want to admit this.
Help your team prioritize, delegate, or if need be, remove items from the list. Focus on the team’s biggest priorities by using Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs. This system of objective setting gives clarity around what will have the highest impact on the organization.
It’s also helpful to practice the art of setting healthy boundaries. This will help them in both their time management skills and their stress levels.
6. Emphasize wellbeing/wellness, EAP opportunities.
Many companies offer programs and support to help employees weather difficult times. At 15Five, for example, we provide stipends for both health and wellness as well as learning and education to employees through Zestful, an employee reward platform. The solution works with pre-approved health and wellness vendors to grant easier access for their users.
In addition, every team member at 15Five has a subscription to meditation.live, a wellness app that offers meditation and movement classes, courses, workshops, and panels in a live and interactive setting.
Although there are numerous wellness benefits available, talk with employees to determine which ones are most needed in your workforce.
7. Be positive. Build community by encouraging social interactions.
This could be going out for lunch, providing healthy breakfast treats in the morning, or holding a 30-45 minute yoga practice in an open space. There are also ways to include employees who are not in the office. Try getting creative by offering a remote employee a $5 gift card to their favorite tea or coffee spot, and schedule a virtual coffee date.
Building a positive environment starts by focusing on the small things. This can include simply saying “thank you” to someone who offers a helping hand, or by sharing a more meaningful response in a public way. Just make sure that when you’re trying to build community to decrease stress, the additional energy and participation time does not ultimately increase pressure.
Before you know it, the holidays will pass, but given the current work environment, the stress of feeling overwhelmed at work may linger. By encouraging employees to care for their mental and physical health, you can build a culture of wellness and sustainability that will keep them going strong long-term.
Heidi Collins is VP of People Ops at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and 360°reviews. Heidi is drawn to human-centric workplaces and brings 20 years of experience spanning over two countries.