The Job Stress Index of Health Promotion Switzerland examines how stressed Swiss people feel at work. According to the latest survey published in August 2022, almost 3 in 10 employees report that they are dealing with significantly more stress than they feel able to handle with the resources available to them. This can result in levels of exhaustion that damage performance and lead to an increasingly distanced attitude to the workplace. We speak with Imke Knafla, professor and co-director of the Center for Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) about the phenomenon of work burnout.
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Burnout prevention – know the signs!
When we lose passion for our work and find ourselves ever more exhausted, we call this burnout. We speak with ZHAW professor Imke Knafla about burnout. The key advice for burnout prevention: know the signs!
Checklist of burnout symptoms: how can we spot burnout?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the following three characteristics of burnout:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity towards one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
According to the WHO, burnout is a syndrome – i.e. a combination of different symptoms caused by “stress at the workplace that cannot be successfully managed”.
Signs of burnout may include the following mental and/or physical symptoms:
- Lack of concentration
- Sleep disorders
- Chronic fatigue
- Inability to switch off from work
- General listlessness, including towards work
- Irritability and cynicism
- A distanced attitude to work
- Muscle pains
- Increased susceptibility to infections, headaches, back pain, dizziness, palpitations, etc.
- Gastrointestinal complaints
- A tendency to neglect leisure time and social contacts
How do you define burnout?
It is a process that can lead to illness such as depression or physical illnesses like high blood pressure. According to current research, burnout is neither a disease nor a diagnosis. The signs that are usually mentioned in connection with burnout have too much overlap with the signs of depression, for example. The basic requirement for a disease is that there are criteria that can be clearly distinguished from other diseases. This is why the WHO has not defined burnout as a disease. Burnout can therefore be seen as one or more symptoms that may develop into an illness if left unattended for too long. However, the cause of the illness cannot be blamed solely on excess workload in my view. That's too simplistic.
Whether a heavy workload makes someone ill always depends on the individual. To put it another way, how we experience stress is very subjective and sometimes has little to do with objective workload. What is too much for some may be too little for others. Some people look forward to taking the lead on a project, while others shy away from the responsibility. Some are perfectionists, while others are more easily satisfied with a result. Worries in private life can also influence the perceived stress that you experience at the workplace. The focus must therefore always be on the individual and the question: “How can an employee handle stress?” Ideally, the individual should always have sufficient resources to address the challenge. In other words, the resources and challenges should be in balance.
Are there general factors that increase or decrease the risk of burnout?
Research tells us, for example, that stress can be caused by conflict, severe deadline and time pressure, job insecurity due to restructuring and reorganization, or constant work interruptions. On the other hand, factors such as entrepreneurial freedom, holistic activities, supportive and appreciative actions by managers and the team, a feeling of belonging, and the opportunity to contribute your own competencies can have a positive influence.
What can companies do to prevent burnout?
First, ensure that employees and their tasks are a good match. When employees can apply their strengths to a company whose values match their own, their well-being improves, which in turn leads to good performance. Fore example: Introverted employees are probably not best suited to a sales position. On the other hand, it is important to establish a culture of trust. Employees must not be afraid to talk about their situation. And this, perhaps, leads to a final point: good leadership.
How can good leadership prevent burnout?
In the true interests of its employees. As a manager, if I am aware of the strengths and weaknesses of individual employees, I can deploy them appropriately. Above all, this requires a culture that’s vigilant about looking out for the signs of burnout. This is the only way to ensure that you will notice when things are going badly, someone is very tired, mistakes are creeping in, negative feedback is piling up, or employees are withdrawing socially and no longer taking breaks. As mentioned above, burnout is a process – and a vicious cycle. An employee suffering from burnout makes mistakes and works even harder to get their problems under control instead of doing the opposite and knowing when to stop. As a manager, the better you are at spotting the signs of burnout, the sooner you can stop the process and interrupt the vicious cycle.
And as an employee, what can I do to protect myself from burnout?
It is important for employees to know themselves well. For example, they should know what values are important to them, what they are motivated to do, and what tasks naturally appeal to them. They have a responsibility to themselves to reflect on their own well-being and to take care of themselves. When I notice that I’m approaching my personal limits, it is also up to me to consider where I can make a change, who I need to talk to or where I can get support. Services for employees that provide them with easy access to psychological counselling have proven particularly valuable.
We live in a fast-paced, technological world: how much does this contribute to burnout?
Digitization is changing the world of work. New work processes and new forms of collaboration are also changing the demands on employees. The same is true for stress. Some are experiencing the positive aspects of these changes because they may have to travel less, are more flexible, have a better work-life balance, or may even find it easier to withdraw when there is a conflict at work. Others find the new world of work more difficult because it is harder for them to switch off from their working life. One thing that’s definitely needed today is more self-management. Prioritizing yourself and ensuring that you are not distracted and that your focus remains on your tasks – these things are becoming increasingly important.
Prof. Dr. Imke Knafla is co-director of the Center for Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy at the IAP Institute for Applied Psychology at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW). The federally recognized psychotherapist, coach & supervisor heads the Psychological Counselling Center at the ZHAW.
What we know about burnout
How does burnout happen and how can it be treated?