Stress, Stress… Help Staff Avoid Burnout

By: Barbara Bowes

According to a recent human resource survey, the level of stress among Canadian business professionals is rising, with approximately 63 per cent of survey participants blaming their work as the main source of stress. Survey participants also suggested that the continuing instability of the world economy was a contributing factor, as well as personal finances and customer relationships.


But what does a stressful workplace look like? What’s happening in the workplace to create so much stress?


First of all, there have been numerous fundamental changes in how we work. It seems that everything, right from production to administration and support services, has become mechanized and computerized. Information technology has brought the concept of “instantaneous” into our workplaces and this has changed expectations; in other words, everyone wants everything “now!”


Our world seems to have become so fast paced that businesses and employees are struggling to keep up. In fact, if you asked an employee, they might tell you they feel like they are running in a three-legged race because while they have to run fast, something is dragging them down. For instance, with change occurring in business almost every day, employees are forced to be continuous learners, whether they want to or not. They are busy learning new software programs, new policies, new procedures, as well as meeting and working with new employees, new bosses or new customers.


Finally, while many organizations have downsized and restructured, they haven’t truly reduced the work tasks and so you’ll find some employees are completing the work of two to three jobs. No wonder employees are blaming the workplace for their stress. Yet, in my view, work isn’t the only cause of today’s stress.


Just look what we do in our spare time. Coupled with a fast pace at work, we often see our employee families trying to juggle dozens of activities at home. For instance, they create busy personal schedules by over-committing themselves to volunteerism while at the same time racing back and forth with their children’s activities. They leave little time for themselves and soon, weekends are no longer set aside for quiet periods of rest. Instead, employees and their families stay busy, busy, busy. Stress then accumulates from both sides of their lives.


At some point, stressed employees can no longer deal with their excessive and prolonged stress and eventually they’ll begin to experience physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, more commonly known as burnout. However, one of the key challenges with burnout is that while some employees will not recognize their own developing symptoms, others will simply deny how they feel. Dealing with employee burnout is rather a delicate situation, especially if an employee is in denial. Yet if you are a supervisor and/or manager, you need to take responsibility and deal with it, preferably sooner than later.


First, you need to assess and clarify the employee’s behaviour over a period of time. In most cases, you will already have heard about incidents of odd behaviour or emotional outbursts that appear to be completely out of character. Sometimes a person who is normally outgoing and communicative will slowly stop engaging with others until they are completely isolated. They just don’t seem like the same person. You may yourself have seen overt changes in work habits and/or you will notice a growing negativity in an individual’s attitude. In my experience, one of the first signs of burnout is a negative attitude sprinkled with an “I can’t” and/or “I won’t.”


Prior to confronting a stressed-out or burned-out employee, I suggest that managers conduct their own stress inventory by examining how they are directing the work and what stress this might be causing. In many cases, managers don’t realize they are setting impossible requirements, particularly as it relates to deadlines. Nor do they stop to think of all the tasks they’ve already delegated to their employee and then stop and re-prioritize. Lastly, managers often forget to assess the capabilities of their employee and fail to recognize that some employees struggle with trying to do multiple tasks at the same time.


Keep in mind that many employees who are experiencing burnout will either not be comfortable disclosing their feelings or they may not even recognize their own symptoms. Therefore, it is important to confront your employee with specific observations. For instance, if you are raising the issue of excessive absenteeism, then refer to the number of times the individual was away from work. If deadlines have been missed, then refer specifically to the job tasks and the dates when they became overdue. If a negative attitude is the most obvious problem, then give specific examples of where this has been problematic.


Next, ask the employee for feedback to confirm their understanding of the problems you have described. Ask the individual for comment to help you understand what might be behind the deteriorating behaviour. If the issues are work related, such as feeling a lack of control over work, too many deadlines, not enough resources or a need for more prioritization, then collaborate with the employee to find solutions. But no matter what, the work needs to get done.


While it is always wise to intervene at earlier stages of burnout, many times burnout will creep up on the employee and the manager and by the time you confront the issue, the employee may be in need of more serious assistance. Be sure to refer the employee to your employee assistance program for counselling and/or advise the individual to seek professional help. In some cases, a brief leave of absence accompanied by stress counselling will assist the employee to get back on track. On the other hand, the longer an employee is away on leave, the harder it will be for that person to return to work.


The increase of stress in the workplace is indeed a disturbing trend and if we don’t deal with it, all elements of our businesses and/or organizations will suffer. While we can’t create change in an employee’s family life, we can make process and structural changes in our workplace that ensure our employees do not experience constant and exaggerated stress.


Source: Stress levels rising among business professionals: Survey, Two-thirds of employees cite work as biggest stressor, Sept. 14, 2012


Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She is also host of the weekly Bowes Knows radio show and is the author of Resume Rescue and Taming the Workplace Tigers. She can be reached at Learn more at