I’ve read a couple of things about the health consequences of stress. I have a good job and I know I should feel grateful, but I hate it. It just drains me to the point where I don’t enjoy anything anymore. I don’t even have the energy to find something else. Is there anything I can do to turn this around? – “Drained and Down” in Delaware
What you are describing sounds like something we are reading about a lot lately. It is a growing concern in business and society commonly known as burnout. I’m certainly in no position to say for sure that this is what is going on with you, but it is worth considering. Though burnout is connected to prolonged periods of stress, experts tell us there are distinct differences between the two. Stress, they say, generally involves too much – too many demands on you physically and psychologically. Burnout, we’re told, is about not enough. It is characterized by disengagement, not over-engagement – by feeling empty, devoid of motivation and beyond caring and not seeing any hope of positive change in one’s situation. The scary thing is that unlike the case with stress, people don’t always notice burnout when it happens.
If you feel you are slipping into burnout, Helpguide.org suggests starting to deal with it with the “three R” approach:
- Recognize. Watch for the warning signs.
- Reverse. Try to undo the damage of stress by managing it and seeking support.
- Resilience. Build your resilience by making your physical and emotional health of paramount importance.
According to a 2013 report by Gallup, a mere 30 percent of people in America feel engaged at work. Helpguide.org says there are currently more than 1,000 journal articles dealing with some aspect of burnout published every year as researchers grapple with the underlying causes of burnout, getting the upper hand and developing effective solutions.
In the past, studies were conducted primarily by psychologists and focused on workers in a narrow range of high-stress occupations, such as social workers. Today the research and perspective have broadened greatly. Just last week, The New York Times published an opinion piece co-authored by the head of a prominent business consulting firm and by a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, titled “Why You Hate Work.” Their thesis was that excessive demands are leading to burnout everywhere as these demands for our time increasingly exceed our capacity. At the crux of it is the relentless stress created by increased demands caused, in large part, by digital technology . Interestingly, their focus was on not just rank-and-file employees but middle managers, as well as the most senior executives. In a study conducted by the Harvard Medical School that took a random sample of 72 senior management leaders, it was learned that nearly all reported at least some signs of burnout.
To explore the subject of burnout further, the authors partnered with the Harvard Business Review last fall and surveyed more than 12,000 employees across a wide range of companies and industries. What they discovered was that employees are more satisfied and productive when four core needs are met:
- Physical: The opportunity to regularly recharge and renew at work.
- Emotional: Feeling valued and appreciated for their contribution.
- Mental: Being allowed the opportunity to really focus on their most important tasks.
- Spiritual: Being connected to a higher purpose at work, when what they are doing is given a bigger meaning.
The more effective an organization is in supporting employees in meeting these core needs the more engaged, loyal and satisfied employees are and the lower their perceived level of stress. The researchers discovered that when even one of these core needs is met, compared with none, employee performance improves, and so does the bottom line. A 2012 Gallup study of 192 companies that rated tops in engaged employees, compared with the bottom companies, demonstrated 22 percent higher profitability, 28 percent less theft and 48 percent fewer safety incidents.
Studies also continue to reaffirm the value of intermittent rest during the workday. A Fox News report in February pointed out a small study conducted in Fairfield, Iowa, in which teachers and support staff at a school for children with behavioral problems began practicing meditation exercises to deal with work-related stress and burnout. After practicing 20 minutes of meditation twice a day for four months, stress levels among participants fell significantly, while the stress levels of school staffers who did not participate in the study continued to rise. Participants also felt less depressed and less emotionally exhausted.
In a pilot program conducted several years ago involving 150 accountants during the middle of the busy tax season – when productivity is traditionally measured by how many hours are put in – a group of these employees was given a mandatory short break after every 90-minute period of uninterrupted, highly focused work and one hour-long break in the late afternoon, when the tendency to fall into a slump is highest. With higher focus, these employees ended up getting more work done in less time and leaving work earlier than the rest of their colleagues. Whether we are talking number crunchers or factory workers, it seems clear that satisfied employees tend to produce higher profits for employers, reduce employee turnover and thus reduce the cost of recruiting and training new employees.
According to the Times article, companies are taking on the challenge of fighting these negative consequences of seemingly unmanageable demands by implementing policies as simple as mandating a 90-minute cap on meetings, creating fitness facilities and nap rooms, and providing healthy, high-quality food at little or no charge.
“In a numbers-driven world, the most compelling argument for change is the growing evidence that meeting the needs of employees fuels their productivity, loyalty and performance,” the authors said.
But change is often slow to come, even in the face of the need for it. And let’s face it; we all have those days when we feel bored, overloaded or unappreciated. But if you feel you are slipping into burnout, know that your options for dealing with it may be multiplying. Work opportunities that put employees first seem to be expanding as more and more senior executives realize they are suffering from the very same symptoms and conflicts as those who work for them.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.