Participation in meaningful work is good for mental health and wellbeing. When people experience positive work engagement, they experience motivation and energy at work, a strong sense of involvement and accomplishment. Employee engagement provides benefits for employers and employees in terms of productivity, job satisfaction, workplace culture and morale. Under stress, people can generally maintain high levels of performance for short periods. However, prolonged, high stress can result in overload. This can ultimately affect wellbeing, performance and morale.
Burnout could be thought of as being at the opposite end of the spectrum to engagement. Burnout is a psychological condition that emerges over time as a response to chronic job-related stress. It is characterised by overwhelming exhaustion, negative feelings and disengagement, feelings of low accomplishment and ineffectiveness. Physical signs of burnout include frequent headaches or muscle pain, lowered immunity, changes in sleep and appetite.
Workplace risk factors
Burnout has traditionally been associated with professions such as education, health care and human service areas that involve high levels and intensity of personal contact and emotional involvement. However, with increasing pressure on employers to produce more with less, burnout is increasingly relevant as a work hazard in other work environments.
Burnout is largely a problem of imbalance. There are six types of workplace imbalances that are known to increase the risk of burnout:
Imbalance between workload demands and the resources provided to complete the job, leading to a person feeling over-worked, exhausted, unable to recover and restore balance
Imbalance in autonomy and decision-making, leading to a person feeling unable to influence their effectiveness at work
Imbalance in rewards and recognition, leading to a person feeling de-valued at work
Imbalance in the sense of community at work, leading to a person feeling isolated
Imbalance in the perceived quality and fairness of procedures and decisions, affecting how a person perceives they are being treated at work
Imbalance between personal values and workplace values can lead to a trade-off between what a person feels they should do and what they have to do
Personal risk factors
Several personal factors can place people at a greater risk of burnout. These factors also involve imbalances, between personal and work life:
Relying on success at work as a yardstick for success in life can mean that personal satisfaction becomes dependent on factors or events that are unpredictable and outside your control
Setting overly high expectations of yourself and others can lead to a sense of underachieving and disappointment/resentment towards others
Needing to be in control and not able to delegate work, can lead to feeling overwhelmed and isolated from others
Not taking physical and mental breaks from work – e.g. checking emails outside work hours, not switching off
Not paying attention to general health factors such as exercise, diet and social relationships outside of work
Workplaces vary in their understanding, capacity and commitment to creating a mentally healthy workplace. As employers recognise the business cost of burnout, they are more likely to understand the benefits of lowering the risk factors. Individuals also have a role to play in being aware of personal risk factors and paying attention to personal wellbeing and self-care.
Burnout can “creep up” and place a person at risk of mental illness such as depression. Early recognition of signs of burnout is important so that the factors contributing to burnout can be identified. Sharing concerns with others can be a first step in making sense of symptoms and seeking help to bring about positive change.
Anne Ward is principal psychologist of Mindinsight, providing evidence-based psychology and coaching services. Mindinsight is located in the T&G Building at 45 Hunter Street Newcastle. Phone 4942 7660 or visit www.mindinsight.com.au for more information.