Stress and burnout: Tips for employees and employers

Employee stress can damage individuals and business productivity, but there are ways to plan and take action, and measure interventions.
Stress and burnout: Tips for employees and employers

“Burnout is here, and it is big time,” according to workplace wellbeing expert Sir Cary Cooper, Ph.D., professor of organisational psychology at Manchester University in the UK.

Burnout — or simply an inability to perform a job — is one manifestation of stress, which occurs when work pressure exceeds an employee’s ability to cope. Stress can also show itself as physical symptoms or mental illness such as anxiety or depression.

Cooper, who is also a founding director of workplace wellbeing consultancy Robertson Cooper, told FM in an interview that stress and burnout were problems before COVID-19 hit.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD’s) and Simplyhealth’s 2019 Health and Well-Being at Work survey of HR and learning and development professionals found that across UK organisations stress was most commonly cited after minor illnesses and musculoskeletal injuries in the top three reasons for short-term workplace absence. For long-term absence, stress (cited by 54% of HR and learning and development respondents), musculoskeletal injuries (54%), and mental ill health (59%) such as clinical depression were most reported in the top three causes.

In its March 2020 survey at the start of the pandemic, the CIPD found that stress had appeared to decline as a top three cause of long-term absence. However, the report said that mental ill health was the most common cause of long-term absence, with nearly three-fifths (59%) of organisations citing this among their top three causes.

Rachel Suff, CIPD senior policy adviser, employment relations, told FM that as well as the “general fear and increased risk of anxiety” associated with COVID-19, many people will have worries about loss of income or job and what the future holds. “Lockdown and isolation, separation from loved ones, bereavement, and new work demands can combine to increase the threats to people’s mental wellbeing,” she added.

Cooper said that before the pandemic “bigger companies were dealing with it because they saw that as a problem, but the SMEs … didn’t have the resources to deal with it like the larger companies”.

Financial services

The financial services sector, Cooper suggested, had dealt with the current stress and burnout problem relatively well as it “had suffered the most during the recession [and its aftermath] of 2008–15”. He explained: “They began to think about the implications on the survivors of that — the people in the workplace suffering from … job insecurity, working long hours to try to compensate to show commitment.”

He said that presenteeism or people working when unwell rose “in the 2008–15 scenario, and it is happening now”. He added: “We’re seeing it again … and that will be in the finance and accountancy sector, too.

“Employers are going to want to keep their labour costs down, so they will downsize particularly when all the [government] support systems are gone. … There will be a real worry about ‘Is my job safe, secure?’ and the uncertainty.”

The UK financial market has a further problem, Cooper said. “The [post-Brexit trade] agreement reached with the EU does not cover the financial services sector, and therefore … the uncertainty will be even more palpable than it would be for other sectors.”

Employee self-help

“We each have a role to play,” Cooper said. He suggested a three-stage process to enable employees to take control of a situation where stress is developing:

Recognise the symptoms. These start as subtle changes in behaviour. “When you are normally very humorous, very sociable, and affable, you start to become socially withdrawn. When you are usually very decisive, you start having difficulty making decisions. … Any change in behaviour is an indication that you are at the dividing line between just normal pressure and you are starting to get into the stress zone,” Cooper explained.

Other symptoms that can develop include difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol intake, not taking exercise, and having headaches where previously someone didn’t.

Discover what is driving the symptoms. To do this either talk to a close friend or a counsellor. The drivers could include long working hours, the way you are managed, being bullied, a general lack of interest in your role, and job insecurity.

Plan a strategy and take action. “You don’t just sit back and wait for things to happen to you like we did during the [global] financial crisis,” Cooper warned. “If you don’t take action, you will continue to get ill and more seriously ill.”

Employers’ role

Suff said line managers have a large role in supporting people’s mental wellbeing. “They will often be the first port of call if someone is experiencing stress or burnout and should be able to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health before the situation escalates,” she said.

She added: “This means they need to be trained and guided in how to have sensitive conversations and signpost people to the right sources of support.”

Cooper said employee wellbeing is a strategic issue that needs board consideration. A problem can lead to high absence levels and lower productivity. He suggested it was “not about beanbags, ping pong tables, and mindfulness at lunch”.

He said businesses first need to conduct a wellbeing and stress audit, which will reveal the different issues in the different parts of the business. He also suggested that senior leadership teams may need to be educated about the issue’s importance.

Cooper said companies can make interventions that include:

  • Resilience training for employees.
  • Training for line managers to improve their social skills.
  • Taking steps to reduce a long-hours culture.
  • Reducing out-of-hours email while maintaining employees’ desire to work flexibly.
  • Ensuring promotions are based on a parity between an employee’s technical and management skills rather than on technical skills alone.

Cooper said the effect of these interventions can be measured by seeing if there is reduced sickness absence, higher job satisfaction, or improved productivity.

— Oliver Rowe ( is an FM magazine senior editor.