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The wise rest at least as hard as they work

Last month the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that “burnout” is going to be included in their International Classification of Diseases – strictly not as a disease but instead as an “occupational syndrome”. They say that this syndrome is entirely due to chronic workplace stress and can result in exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional efficacy. According to the Health and Safety Executive over half a million people in the UK suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18. Burnout is estimated to cost the global economy £255 billion every year, through missed work days.

Whilst I haven’t had full on burnout I think I got pretty close to it in my first job. I was working on a very intense project working late nights and most weekends for about six months. I loved my work and being the type of personality that takes on responsibility I was very keen to do well and make myself indispensable. One day I had to stay home due to a broken washing machine. I can still remember how, whilst nipping to the shops, the sun came out and I stopped to admire the light striking the trees. Then it dawned on me how out of balance my life was and that I needed to stop working such long hours.

Interestingly some of the causes of my near-burnout were pretty obvious – a heavy workload and a sustained period of stress. But perhaps a less obvious driver was my conscientiousness and my ambition – I wanted to do a good job and I sucked up responsibility even though I was the most junior. Of course, the conundrum is that whilst I was coping with the stress the company got great value out of me – I hadn’t cracked and so wasn’t displaying what the WHO called “reduced professional efficacy”. So, in the short-term it was in the business’s interest to encourage me to work long hours so as not have the expense of another person on the project.

Researchers at the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence would have classified me as “engaged-exhausted”. A survey of over 1,000 U.S. employees found that it’s possible to be very passionate about work and experience burnout. This group of employees are more likely to report high levels of frustration and they are most likely to leave a job – even when compared to employees that are disengaged. If I had carried on much longer, I probably would have hit a wall, like so many people do. When this happens people’s health really suffers. When we are stressed our bodies are on high alert much like the fight-and-flight mode and our brains shut down non-essential functions. Adrenalin and cortisol flood our bodies increasing our heart rates and blood pressure as well as preparing us to repair tissues (something that might be necessary if we were in an actual fight). It’s no wonder that the risk of heart attacks increases.

This state is not easy for people to find their way out of either, especially as people with burnout struggle to think clearly and they feel bad for not coping better. Born out of a necessity to stay afloat, our adrenaline-fuelled behaviour becomes a new ‘normal’. So approaches aimed at helping have to go back to the basics of self-care – what do people need to be physically and psychologically healthy? In my own close call, I had lost sight of my own needs as I prioritized the company’s demands.

Positive psychology can help here. Studies have taught us that positive emotions can undo the physical effects of stress and negative emotions. From a physiological perspective, being in a safe, kind, caring environment where we are happy is pretty much the opposite of stress as our nervous systems are relaxed. Positive emotions actually slow down the ageing process, which sounds far-fetched but think how stress ages people. Taking breaks from work to do whatever it is that helps us feel calm and positive is an important element of self-care.

The sports world has long understood the need for athletes to manage their determination and energy, ensuring that they have regular rest days as well as the occasional extended break. It is simply impossible to work at peak performance all the time and indeed to attempt to is almost certainly doomed to fail. Business leaders who use sports analogies to fire up their teams would do well to remember this.

Enlightened businesses are starting to realize that it is in their self-interest to help their employees achieve balance in their lives. Flexible working is becoming more prevalent with some companies even moving to four-day weeks. Encouraging employees to take their holiday is also a good place to start as remarkably only 43% of people take their full entitlement in the UK.

At Friday we also know how important the weekend is to people. It is one of the reasons we think asking people every Friday about their experience of work is a good idea. Not only does it set a goal for people to leave work happy on a Friday, but even if that isn’t the case people get opportunity to log and share their frustration before leaving for home.

So watch out for early signs of burnout. Protect your weekends and enjoy your holidays. Most of all take your and your colleagues’ happiness at work seriously.

(In case you're wondering, "The wise rest at least as hard as they work" is a quote from author Mokokoma Mokhonoana.)