1 – How can you determine the difference between ‘healthy’ stress and burnout?

This is really the central, almost existential question here. Neither “stress” nor “burnout” are formal medical terms or actual diagnoses. Instead, these are popular-language terms that are often used quite loosely and varyingly. “Stress” can be described as the uncomfortable feeling created by the pressures and uncertainties of life (possible change and uncertainty are almost always central here). In this sense it is argued that a degree of stress is normal and unavoidable since life is not predictable and indeed, uncertainties, worries, and pressures do exist for all of us. But when our coping mechanisms and our resilience is exceeded we experience excessive stress, or unhealthy stress, or toxic stress, or chronic long-lasting stress (these similar terms refer to more-or-less the same thing). This type of problem stress can lead to what we call “burnout” which is really a state of mental exhaustion characterised by no-longer-coping with life. So it comes down to the balance between what life throws at us and our resilience. When life gets too much, we experience unhealthy or excessive stress, which can lead to burnout. Put slightly differently: we burn out when we can longer effectively cope with the stresses of life.

2 – What is your advice to employees who feel like they are on the brink of burnout?

Burnout is serious. While it is true that is not an actual medical or psychiatric diagnosis, it can lead to some. When life and stress overwhelms us we can become burnt out – this typically involves a feeling of being overwhelmed & exhausted, often leading to feelings of “giving up” (…“what’s the use” …“It’s all too much”… “I can’t any more”…). This in turn can be associated with, or cause, serious conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, and more. Life creates stress, stress can cause burnout, burnout can lead to serious psychiatric problems. So when you feel that your coping capacity is nearing exhaustion please seek professional help. See your doctor, the company EAP (if there is one), or a psychologist. If you prefer you might approach your Pastor, Imam, or Rabbi. Or just start by talking to someone at home or a close friend. But do not “go it alone” please (incredibly strong people seek help when they need it because smart is part of strong).

3 – How can managers identify and prevent burnout in employees?

Managers are not doctors or nurses or psychologists (usually). These issues are understandably worrying for managers because they will often feel under-qualified to manage the situation. And yet managers can play such a valuable role here, without needing any professional healthcare training, in these ways:

  • De-stigmatise. If managers regularly mention mental health issues and their importance to the workplace, in so doing demonstrating their open-mindedness and the lack of any form of judgement, this will go a long way to de-stigmatising the whole issue. It’s subtle, important, and something every single one of us (managers and non-managers) can do.
  • Remind everyone about support channels. Each company is different, but most will have some form of support-programme for these kind of issues. Often there is a company-funded EAP, which is a great professional counselling service for staff. Managers should regularly mention these services, provide contact info, etc. All staff should know how to get help and managers should make certain everyone does know this vital information (in some companies, this employee-knowledge is tested and counts in the manager’s performance appraisal).
  • Look for changes. Managers are all about managing productivity. This is where stress will show itself. Stressed and or burnt-out staff will often be distracted, tense, short-fused, and less effective than normal. Some may develop time-keeping problems. Some may appear less-well-groomed than normal. Managers should look for this sort of change and intervene early. It is not our place to advise managers on productivity management but when it may be linked to an underlying stress or burnout (or any other health) issue, we suggest a sensitive respectful approach rather than any sort of harsh or disciplinary approach, at least initially.
  • Focus on help and support. Not discipline and correction. Again, we’re hesitant to get into the murky waters of performance management but when an employee may be suffering burnout, we do recommend a supportive approach initially. Yes, we know that performance counts in the end, but support and understanding can often help people return to full productivity, and so this should always be the goal.

4 – What are a few practical ways to avoid burnout?

Avoiding burnout really comes down to maintaining balance in our lives. So, it is about avoiding excessive stress but also about building or maintaining our resilience and coping capacity. Some important tips include:

  • Live well. Eat well, sleep enough, exercise regularly. Avoid smoking and keep any alcohol (or other substances) use in moderation at least. We know you’re tired of this advice, but it really HAS been shown to make a difference in preventing and in treating stress/burnout. If you’re eating rubbish, sleeping less than 7 hours a night, and doing no exercise, you really are “asking for it”.
  • Get organised. Lists, diaries, neat desks, practical reminder-systems, etc. All of these can help you manage time better, get more done with less time, avoid forgetting things, etc. Organised people are effective, and they have less stress. Organised is cool.
  • Prioritise time. It is your most precious asset. Even when you’re young. It is finite. 24 hours a day, no more. 52 weeks a year, no more. Use it wisely.
  • Be realistic. Even when you are living well and you’re organised and you’re mindful of time, life can still get too much sometimes. Look out for this and be honest, with yourself. Once you see you’re starting to struggle it is time to change some things. Perhaps you have to say no to some social engagements to get some much-needed rest. Or it may be that you need to say no at work or speak with your boss at least. Monitor yourself. Be honest. Manage your life balance.

5 – What are your top tips for dealing with feelings of being overwhelmed or stressed on a daily basis.

OK, this is a tricky one. Anyone who feels overwhelmed or stressed daily should be 1 seeking professional help 2 seeking professional help 3 seeking professional help 4 seeking professional help 5 seeking professional help! So, having said that (five times, sorry…), what ELSE should we do when we’re not coping?

  • Understand that in the modern world we almost all get overwhelmed at times. You are not alone. “Everybody hurts sometimes” is a great R.E.M. track but also a real truth.
  • Seek professional help (OK, you’ve got that now).
  • Live well (sleep, eat, exercise, watch the smokes, booze, etc…..).
  • Exercise (active living is such a boost for mental health that it truly does deserve special focus here).
  • Talk to someone you trust. Even if you’re seeing a professional, or if you’re not (why not?) you may well benefit from simply sharing how you feel. Find someone you trust and try to discuss how you feel. The first thing that will happen is that you’ll be surprised at how you’re not alone (so many of us struggle with the same or similar things) and the second thing will be that you feel a bit better having got things off your chest a bit.
  • Seek professional help (sorry, could not help myself….)