Myths About Burnout

Debunking The Myths of Workplace Stress And Burnout

 

Burnout Myths

This article is aimed at any employee that has experienced workplace stress and burnout. If, like other professionals, you’ve tried everything humanly possible to buffer the impacts of work stress and still find yourself exhausted and approaching burnout, then please read on.

Preventing burnout and work stress is a much-misunderstood phenomenon. The widely accepted model of prevention has relied almost exclusively on employees engaging in self-care activities to boost their resilience. But does self-care prevent burnout and work stress? The simple answer is no! Keep reading as we dispel the common myths about preventing burnout and explore the limitations of self-care.

 

Myth # 1 Self-care Prevents Stress And Burnout

Self-care refers to activities and practices that are initiated by the individual to foster wellbeing and good health. Self-care is a vital part of an integrative and holistic approach to burnout management, but its role is to buffer the impacts of stress and alleviate the impact on your physical, emotional, cognitive and physiological wellbeing. Self-care activities help to ameliorate the impacts of stress but do not address stress at the source. Effective self-care should be combined with organisation-directed interventions that directly target stressors in the workplace. Identifying stressors in the workplace and taking steps to modify them is the best approach to preventing stress and burnout.

 

Myth # 2 Stressed and Burnt Out Employees Have Themselves To Blame

Stress is defined as a response employees may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope. Unfortunately, this definition has been misinterpreted to infer individual causation and responsibility. That is, employees are often blamed for their stress symptoms, which are believed to be synonymous with the stressors in the workplace. Unfortunately, employees are often viewed as responsible for their stress and burnout symptoms or in some instances, blamed for causing their stress response. As a result of this misunderstanding of the relationship between workplace stressors and employees experiencing stress, preventative measures have primarily focussed on assisting individuals to cope better with stress. Self-care strategies have been viewed as a cure-all for stressed-out employees. A lack of selfcare does not cause stress and burnout.

Work-related stress is caused by stressors or work pressures. Work pressures include long and unsociable work hours or poorly designed shift work, high and demanding workloads, lack of control and autonomy, unfair reward or recognition for work done, emotional demands, inadequate support from co-workers or supervisors, conflict between the work-home interface, an unproductive organisational culture, high cognitive demands, and job-person mismatches.
Stressed and burnt out employees are not to blame for their stress response.

 

Myth # 3 Workplace Wellbeing and Wellness Programs Prevent Stress and Burnout

Australian workplace wellness and wellbeing programs follow an American model which target chronic disease prevention—such as cardiovascular disease and obesity-related diseases, and lifestyle management aimed at behaviour change regarding exercise, healthy eating, reduced alcohol consumption, and quit smoking campaigns. The typical Australian wellness program offers a variety of individually directed activities such as fitness sessions, meditation courses, workshop topics such as effective communication and improving wellbeing, blood pressure/blood sugar screenings, and perhaps even a regular singing group. There is nothing inherently wrong with wellness or wellbeing programs. The difficulty arises when workplace wellness programs are presented as a means to prevent work stress and burnout. As mentioned above, stress and burnout are NOT caused by a lack of self-care.

Myth # 4 Management Or The Organisation Can’t Prevent Employee Stress And Burnout

The notion that management and organisations are powerless to prevent employee stress and burnout is a myth. This myth has worked in unison with the myth that employees are responsible for their stress response and that the symptoms of stress are the same as the causes of stress. Managers and organisations can prevent employee stress and burnout from occurring. Western Australia is moving towards the implementation of Model Laws, which are a single set of workplace health and safety laws for all states and territories. One of the fundamental changes to the current legislation is the re-definition of health to include psychological health in addition to physical health. This change means that in addition to preventing physical injury in the workplace, employers and employees now have the responsibility to prevent psychological injury.

Safe Work Australia recommend a risk assessment model to identify and address work pressures. The World Health Organisation endorse the risk assessment model, which is promoted nationally and internationally as the best-practice approach to risk management. Identified work pressures include workload, lack of control and autonomy, unfair reward or recognition for work done, long and unsociable work hours, emotional demands, inadequate support from co-workers and supervisors, conflict between the work-home interface, an unproductive organisational culture, high cognitive demands, and job-person mismatch. It becomes more evident when reading through this list of work pressures that self-care is not an activity that can influence or change these pressures. Meditation, for example, cannot reduce excessively long work hours or improve poorly designed shift work. Meditation can, however, boost a person’s ability to manage the impacts of shift work, but it won’t change the nature or frequency of a rostered shift.

 

Myth # 5 Boosting Employee Engagement Will Prevent Stress And Burnout

The term work engagement refers to an employees’ state of work-related wellbeing, including feeling positive, fulfilled, and motivated. Engaged employees are said to have energy and vigour and willingly apply their energy to their work, demonstrating dedication and wholehearted commitment to the task at hand. Most engagement activities initiated by organisations tend to be aimed at resourcing staff but do not address the causes of stress, which would reduce burnout and stress. Engagement initiatives include offering social support opportunities in the workplace, offering performance feedback, designing processes that are inclusive of staff involvement, and initiatives that foster individual decision making and professional autonomy. All these initiatives make good economic sense, and engaged employees are happier and have a higher level of workplace wellbeing. This article is not an attack on engagement activities. My message is that engagement initiatives could be broadened to encompass the identification of work pressures, which contribute to burnout and stress. Once identified, work pressures can then be modified to avoid staff burnout and stress.

 

Myth # 6 Lunchtime Yoga Will Prevent Stress And Burnout

Of the evidence-based self-care interventions recommended to improve your stress response, yoga is an activity that can buffer the impacts of work stress. Yoga per se, however, does not prevent stress or burnout. Activities that promote detachment, mindful disengagement and relaxation are beneficial in helping people to recover from daily work stress. Worrying about work, ruminating over work issues, problem-solving work issues, and re-hashing conversations may elicit strain reactions such as fatigue, anxiety, physical symptoms and poor sleep, all of which impact recovery. The ability to successfully detach psychologically has many benefits. Employees who can mentally detach during off-hours have higher levels of wellbeing, feel more satisfied with their lives, experience less emotional exhaustion, and have lower levels of strain such as poor sleep compared to employees who remain mentally attached. The benefits of detachment show up on a day to day basis and filter through to the following day with employees feeling less irritable, less fatigued, more content and more cheerful. These improved affective states related to improved performance and the ability to buffer the negative incidences at work, such as bullying.

Self-care practices and activities that are evidence-based include yoga, mindfulness meditation, resilience training, cognitive behaviour therapy, stress reduction psychoeducation, spending time in nature, exercise, and creative pursuits like art and journaling. Self-care also extends to activities that are intuitively beneficial such as eating nutritiously, sleeping well, focusing on one’s health, taking lunch breaks during work hours, socialising, and laughter. It is worth noting that while lunchtime activities that promote detachment and relaxation are highly beneficial and recommended, it can be extremely difficult trying to psychologically detach from work when return to work occurs immediately after the break. To detach from work means to detach for an extended period, such as after work and before work begins again the following day or after the weekend. This suggests benefits derived from lunchtime yoga maybe short-lived because returning to work immediately after the session places the employee back in a state of attachment.

 

Myth # 7 Spending Time in Nature Prevents Stress And Burnout

Spending time in nature will assist with recovery, relaxation and psychological detachment from work, but it won’t prevent burnout and stress. Nature is restorative because the natural environment fosters effortless attention involving soft stimuli. Soft stimuli allow for reflection and recovery of inhibitory brain mechanisms needed for direct attention abilities associated with work performance. One’s connection with nature and being in nature as an activity to foster detachment, recovery and relaxation is very powerful, so much so that it is argued that a nature experience is more effective than meditation. Don’t give up on spending time in nature to aid relaxation, recovery and psychological detachment. Spending time in nature will boost your ability to buffer the impacts of stress.

If you’d like more information on how to prevent stress and burnout, contact Alison Bickell on mobile 0417 827 129.

Author: Alison Bickell
Photo: Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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