A degree of stress is, usually, part of the workplace experience. Many people are familiar with the surge of adrenaline or the raised heart rate that comes with a looming deadline, a crunch meeting, or an important presentation. Indeed, many people thrive on it.
But stress can also be exhausting and debilitating - and when it is long-term and acute, it can have huge implications for physical and mental health. Just ask Marianne Jones, who has written a fascinating article for The Times about how the job she loved could have killed her.
As the editor of a national magazine, Marianne was used to coping with stress – and considered herself to be extremely mentally robust. But when lockdown hit, and the nature of her job changed, she found it hard to adjust.
“I began to put in regular 12-hour days, working from my kitchen table, then eating from it. This dripped into weekends of firefighting: conjuring up new pages, joining endless Zoom conferences, managing staff with very real anxieties.” As is often the case, external factors added to her stress. “It didn’t help that in the background my mum was diagnosed with dementia and I couldn’t even see her.” She began to experience physical symptoms. She suffered dizziness, neck-stiffness, headaches, and trouble sleeping despite being exhausted. Her left eye began to twitch, and her heart would often pound uncontrollably.
But Marianne did what many people do – especially those in high-functioning jobs. She ignored it. “Truth be told, unless I’d fallen down, movie-style, clutching my heart, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that my symptoms were worrying.”
But it turns out that such an apocalyptic scenario could very well have come to pass. Eventually, with her mood also plummeting, Marianne went to see her GP. “Ten minutes later, after revealing blood pressure readings that were just below the “crisis” hypertensive zone, my GP calmly instructed my husband to drive me to the nearest pharmacy immediately, where drugs I will now take for ever were bagged up.” It didn’t end there. Days later, she had to spend a night in A&E being monitored for a suspected stroke after struggling to breathe as she lay down in bed.
Marianne was suffering from burnout. Extreme, yes, but it could happen to many of us.
What is burnout?
In 2019, the WHO classified burnout as a ‘workplace phenomenon’ caused by chronic workplace stress. Its characteristics are:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one's job
reduced professional efficacy
A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry by the Yale School of Medicine found the three primary symptoms of early burnout are increasing levels of fatigue, irritability and cynicism. The strongest predictor of burnout is feeling constantly tired and lacking one’s normal energy, says the study.
Other symptoms may include thinking negatively about one’s job, feeling unappreciated by co-workers, loneliness, feeling under pressure to succeed, lack of job fulfilment, feeling overwhelmed, unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, sleeplessness, and turning to unhealthy food, alcohol or drugs to feel better. Or to not feel at all.
Because we spend the majority of our waking hours working, if you hate your job and dread going to work, and don’t gain satisfaction from what you’re doing, it can take a serious toll on your life.
And the problem is a widespread one. According to a survey of 1000 desk-based and non-desk-based workers, published in August 2022, a staggering 88% of UK employees have experienced at least some level of burnout over the last two years, with one third claiming to suffer from physical and mental exhaustion frequently due to pressures within the workplace.
What can workers do?
But there are steps people can take to mitigate workplace stress, and to stave off burnout.
Give yourself the best chance of a good night’s sleep. Aim to get up and go to bed at the same time every day, even at the weekend, to regulate your circadian rhythms.
Take more care over what and how you eat. Eat foods which are good for gut health, such as yoghurt, oats, apples, root vegetables and lentils. Studies published in the journal General Psychiatry have shown that a healthy gut can reduce anxiety.
Get moving. Researchers from the University of Cologne reported that 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, such as cycling or walking, is significantly better at helping us to recover from mental exhaustion than relaxing physically or watching television. It can also help with sleep.
Reclaim some moments of ‘care for self’ every day. Be it going for a walk, taking time to eat your lunch outside, going to a yoga class. All these activities help relax your mind, clear your head and give you a short respite from pressure and should be part of your daily habit.
Don’t look at your phone first thing.
Keep up your social connections.
Cut yourself some slack. Perfectionists tend to be people pleasers and are more prone to burnout.
Do box breathing for two minutes a couple of times a day. Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breath out for four counts, hold for four counts. Taking deep breaths and focusing on the breath reduces feelings of stress and levels of cortisol in the body.
Meditate even if for only ten minutes each morning. A review of studies in the journal Clinical Psychology Review found strong evidence that people who meditate are less likely to react with negative thoughts in times of stress.
Start with one thing first. Trying a complete overhaul of your habits and lifestyle will be overwhelming. Address one aspect first, for example making time out to have lunch.
Cut down your alcohol consumption.
Ask for help. In a work situation, speak to a colleague, or your HR department. Talking to a therapist will also help.
And what can employers do?
With burnt-out workers under-performing in their jobs, or having to take sick leave, or even leave their jobs altogether, employers need to be looking to help their workforce deal with the effects of stress. A workplace wellbeing tool like BuddyBoost could be a key part of any such goal.
BuddyBoost encourages participants to improve their mental wellbeing by joining a workplace challenge, along with other colleagues, for a month. There are a number of different challenges available, including ones involving physical activity, healthy eating, taking time out for self-care and enjoyment – and even sustainability.
The participants all record their activities on the BuddyBoost app’s community feed, where they can communicate with others undertaking the challenge, posting photos and messages, encouraging and inspiring one another, as well as recording how much their mood has been boosted by their good deeds. The result is a haven of positivity and mutual support, and improved camaraderie and a real sense of community.
By introducing a workplace wellbeing scheme, and encouraging workers to discuss how they are feeling, an employer is also destigmatising the taboos around mental health. This might have made a crucial difference to Marianne Jones. “Anyone over 45 who had full-on jobs in the Eighties and Nineties knows that discussing their mental health would have got them about as far as a door named exit. To survive in journalism you did not, under any circumstances, show weakness or vulnerability.”
Today, Marianne has quit her job, and works for herself, enjoying a better work-life balance. But she is aware that her refusal to acknowledge the messages her mind and body were sending her could have had far-reaching repercussions. “Most of all I still can’t get my head around my naivety about the dangers of stress. Because I presumed I was fit and healthy, I simply didn’t read any of the signs.”
The signs are always there. Taking the time to notice them, and the necessary steps to look after ourselves, is all-important. Prevention, as always, is better than cure.