Is your organisation suffering from symptoms such as low productivity, depleted enthusiasm, high frustration, elevated turnover rates and the frequent loss of top talent? If you answered yes to some or all of the above questions, then there is a good chance that the diagnosis is employee burnout. Employee burnout is often overlooked, being commonly understood as an individual’s problem, rather than an organisational deficiency affecting the business as a whole. However, the truth is, employee burnout is most often linked to issues with the job, than with the employee.
Psychologists have defined the term burnout as: “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, determined by the dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.” In other words, employee burnout is the body failing to engage the normal coping mechanisms used by individuals to manage stressors at work.
The psychological and physical damages of stress – such as anxiety, depression and addiction – are quite well known. However, many people are relatively unfamiliar with how the brain interprets stress. The brainstem – also referred to as the Reptilian Brain due to its similarity to the brain of reptiles – is located in the hind part of our brain just above the spinal column. The Reptilian Brain plays a key role in controlling the nervous system, which in turn controls how we experience and react to emotions. It is also responsible for survival related functions such as breathing, digestion, circulation and the ‘fight or flight’ response. As its primary role is to make sure we stay alive, the Reptilian Brain acts as a bodyguard, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats.
The ‘fight or flight’ response is a survival mechanism that enables mammals – including humans – to react quickly in life threatening situations. The immediacy of the ‘fight or flight’ response enables mammals in danger to fight off the threat or flee to safety. However, not only life-threatening situations can trigger the ‘fight or flight’, but also everyday stressors such as fighting with a loved one or pressure at work. So when an employee is under a lot of stress at work, their Reptilian Brain activation levels become higher and higher increasingly controlling how they respond to events in their life.
Of course, both the fight and the flight responses are far from ideal ways for the brain to react in the workplace. With this in mind, the findings of a study in the ‘Employee Engagement Series’ conducted by Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace, comes as no surprise. This new study found that 95% of human resource leaders admitted employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention and these were the top reasons why:
At TTM associates, we believe that managers have a crucial role to play when it comes to avoiding employee burnout as they are often the ones responsible for delegating tasks and responsibilities, as well as setting the workplace culture.
Based on Dr. Karl Albrecht’s four common types of stress, TTM associates examines each of the four types of stress to look out for in the workplace. As well as recommends solutions for managers to help them identify and manage stress within their team.
Time Stress occurs when employees are constantly worried about time, especially the lack of time to complete their tasks. Employees can feel trapped, unhappy or hopeless if they feel that they have much to do and are afraid that they will not be able to accomplish important tasks on time.
A simple and highly effective time management tool that managers can share with their team is the Eisenhower Box, created by former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. President Eisenhower made a clear distinction between what is important and what is urgent, and divided his responsibilities and duties into four categories: important and urgent; important but not urgent; not important but urgent; not important and not urgent (see image below).
Important activities are the ones that are necessary for us to achieve our personal or professional goals.
Urgent activities demand immediate attention and are commonly linked to the achievement of someone else’s goals. These are often the activities that we prioritise since they demand the most attention and the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.
Anticipatory Stress usually arises when an employee is concerned about something in the future, such as an upcoming presentation or event. Managers can identify this stress by noticing when employees are anxious and are dreading a future event, or are overly worried that something will go wrong.
Anxiety is an internal response to stress caused by external influences. Anxiety activates our fight or flight response, sending our body into survival mode and preparing it to deal with the potential threat by increasing heart rate, moving more blood to muscles and pushing more air into the lungs.
Although the symptoms of anxiety are mostly physical, the feeling of anxiety itself is all in the mind. Anxiety comes from a belief of the possibility that something bad will happen; it is not the same as fear, which is a reaction to something bad actually occurring. So, positive thinking and encouragement can go a long way in reducing anxiety.
Situational Stress usually arises suddenly, as a result of being in a situation that one does not anticipate such as a conflict. This stress is harder to identify because every individual reacts differently. Some may become withdrawn and stay silent, while others might get angry and start to shout.
A proven conflict resolution model is the Thomas-Kilmann model. This model was designed by psychologists, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, and can be used to explain the various response options we can choose from when in a conflict situation. The model consists of two dimensions that create five optional responses. The vertical axis, known as the Assertiveness options, is the first dimension that indicates conflict responses based on our attempt to get what we want. The second dimension is the horizontal axis, which indicates responses based on helping others get what they want and is known as the Cooperativeness options.
Encounter Stress derives from interacting with other people, and can include scenarios such as worrying about speaking to a person, or group of people for example distraught customers. This stress can also develop from contact overload, which is when employees become overwhelmed or drained after interacting with too many people. This stress can also be tricky to identify as people react in a variety of diverse ways. Typical symptoms include being withdrawn, cranky, frustrated, cold or impersonal.
Here is where emotional intelligence is key. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. Understanding how someone else feels allows you to manage relationships more effectively. Emotionally intelligent managers understand the wants and needs of their staff, are good coaches and mentors and create positive work cultures.
When the work environment is encouraging and meets our basic human needs to live, to learn and to feel valued, employees will thrive as opposed to simply survive. Numerous tools exist to help managers reduce stressors and create a positive and healthy work culture, which in turn will help to ensure that employee burnout is not an issue within their organisation. To effectively assign tasks, responsibilities and goals within their teams, managers must also enhance their emotional intelligence and be conscious of what stressors they are putting on their staff, as well as how each employee reacts to stress. Emotionally intelligent leaders are better able to foster autonomy, resolve conflict, retain employees and adjust to change.
- Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) – http://www.kilmanndiagnostics.com/
- The Eisenhower Box – https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_91.htm
- Dr. Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress – https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/albrecht-stress.htm
Please read more about the emotionally intelligent manager in our behavioural leadership book, and learn how
TTM associates can help organisations harness emotionally intelligent behaviours in their managers to control stress related issues and nurture work-life balance for their millennial employees.