If the most discussed workplace issue of the past year has been how many days employees can be expected to attend their offices then the next in line is likely to be mental health and stress. There is little doubt that, as businesses have emerged from the restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic, workers of all sorts have felt the effects of combining new ways of working with other responsibilities against a background of rising uncertainty.
Unfortunately, as a new year dawns, that uncertainty shows little sign of going away. Indeed, it could intensify as the economies of countries such as the U.K. and the U.S. look to be headed for some sort of downturn. Workers — particularly those in “knowledge” businesses — who have previously felt that the talent shortage gave them the advantage in decisions over how and where they should work could in the months ahead find that some managers will reassert themselves by insisting on greater “presenteeism.” Extensive lay-offs at some of the big technology companies that so dominate the world have certainly given pause for thought.
This is despite all sorts of research suggesting that productivity has improved rather than declined under the new working arrangements. Indeed, the tendency for many workers to be more available when working remotely has been one of the causes of the burnout that has been a key aspect of the mental health issues recently seen in the workplace.
Of course, it is not just front-line workers who feel this pressure. Managers, who increasingly take on tasks that were previously the responsibility of HR departments, are also likely to feel the strain, as their superiors seek to brace their businesses against the expected economic headwinds.
Those caught in this situation could do worse than consult the recently published book The Burnout Challenge. In it Christina Maslach, co-creator of the widely used metric the Maslach Burnout Inventory and professor of psychology emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, and organisational psychologist and consultant Michael P. Leiter set about advising on how to manage people’s relationships with their jobs. One of the authors’ key messages is to point out that burnout should not be seen as a personal; issue to be overcome by the individual through such means as obtaining therapy, engaging in relaxation techniques or indeed changing jobs. Instead, they say that it is a workplace issue that needs to be managed like anything else.
They argue that burnout “arises from the increasing mismatch between workers and workplaces” and through their research have identified at least six forms of mismatch that can occur between a job and the person holding it. They are:
— work overload
— lack of control
— insufficient rewards
— breakdown of community
— absence of fairness
— value conflicts
“If mismatches can be corrected or improved, then there are ways to prevent burnout and promote greater engagement with work,” they write.
But, while Maslach and Leiter propose various ways in which organisations can make their working environments less toxic for those they increasingly insist are their greatest assets, there is still room for individuals to take some responsibility for the situation. After all, some of what causes us stress exists outside work — the increasing encroachment on our lives of email, social media and the like, for instance. Those — whatever their level in the organisation — seeking to make a better start to the new year could do worse than consult Crazy Busy, one of a few books with a similar title (which perhaps tells you something about the world we live in.) The author is psychologist Thijs Launspach, a teacher at Amsterdam’s School of Life and a keynote speaker on stress and burnout, who, as the subtitle says, offers advice on “keeping sane in a stressful world.” His 10 ways to lower stress levels include taking care of yourself in terms of eating, sleep and rest; controlling email consumption through checking it less often, accepting that “good enough” is good enough by realising that perfection cannot be achieved all the time, especially if combined with quickly; and doing nothing more often.
At the end of this thoughtful and easy-to-digest book are a few key insights. Besides the reminders that “email is a to-do list for you that is managed by others” and that if you work in your free time it is not free time, it includes the key observation that — at a time when we can all expect to work for longer — work is “a marathon, not a sprint.”