Measuring Stress, Managing Burnout

What is “stress”?

Stress is best understood as the psychological state triggered when we experience events, situations, or demands that are personally important, but where outcomes are uncertain. They tend to co-occur with a range of other states including emotions (e.g., anxiety, fear, anger, or frustration) and thoughts (e.g., worry or rumination). 

Different people can experience stress in different ways. Some people experience intense anxiety when they are stressed. Some get easily frustrated and angry. Others find they are ruminating about their work problems over the weekends, or in the middle of the night. 

Many psychologists see stress as a multi-step process, sometimes called the stress response. When a person is exposed to a new situation, this triggers a fast response known as a stress appraisal. If the situation seems to have high stakes (e.g., risk of personal harm/loss, or a chance for personal gain), the stress-centre of their brain (the amygdala) is activated, causing a release of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) into the bloodstream.

The nature of the initial stress appraisal, in conjunction with a variety of other factors (e.g., one’s previous physiological and psychological state, recent stress appraisals, subsequent stress appraisals, or coping behaviours), determines how much of each hormone is released, and how quickly they are reabsorbed. 

How is “stress” different from burnout?

Burnout is a term given to a syndrome that consists of three conditions: exhaustion (persistent physical, cognitive, and/or emotional fatigue), detachment (feeling isolated and cynical), and inefficacy (feeling like one is accomplishing little that is worthwhile). These conditions can each be experienced independently of one another; burnout occurs when the three conditions occur at the same time. 

This syndrome typically emerges in people who have been experiencing high levels of stress response for a long time. Burnout could therefore be considered a consequence of chronic stress, and is associated with declining work performance, work engagement and job satisfaction, increased withdrawal behaviours (including absenteeism), and increased risk of physical and mental illness. People at this stage typically take a very long time to recover their pre-burnout levels of wellbeing and capability, if indeed they ever do.

How does measuring stress help?

Stress can be measured in a variety of ways, which give rise to different benefits. Having even a basic understanding of your own stress levels gives you better insight into your psychological and emotional health, as well as gauging your individual wellbeing. 

Stress and wellbeing are very strongly related, with experiences of stress decreasing an individual’s wellbeing. By measuring and understanding the stress that people experience in their daily lives, they are able to gain a better understanding of their wellbeing as a consequence of their stress. This insight can then be used to assist in developing ways for an individual to minimise stress and maximise wellbeing.

As burnout is found to occur when an individual has been experiencing high levels of stress over time, tracking stress can indicate when an individual is at risk of experiencing burnout. People can know when they are likely to experience burnout by tracking their stress levels over a period of time, which then allows interventions to be taken to minimise or avoid the outcome altogether.

How to reduce burnout and increase work engagement? 

Otto et al., 2020, uncovered many factors that reduced burnout and increased work engagement in employees, including: 

Increasing and maintaining supervisor social support

Social support from supervisors within the workplace is fundamental to fostering wellbeing and reducing burnout. Employees who feel supported by their supervisor and their workplace are more likely to have better performance, be better able to deal with stress, and experience a sense of purpose in their work.

By increasing the social support, a supervisor provides an employee, the likelihood of burnout occurring is minimised, as it is likely that less stress is experienced.

However, social support provided by a supervisor must be carefully considered, as too little can leave the employee with no feeling of support -which can lead to burnout-, but too much support from may leave the employee with no feeling of autonomy and very little responsibility, minimising their personal sense of capability in the workplace.

Supervisors should make sure they are offering an appropriate amount of social support to their employees, avoiding too much or too little support for each individual based on their specific needs, tasks, and responsibilities.

Increasing and maintaining co-worker social support

Co-workers are also an important source of social support within the workplace, providing a buffer between the emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation elements of burnout. This gives additional resources for employees to better deal with stress and job demands. By providing more resources to mitigate stress in their position, the employee is less likely to experience burnout.

Seeking and performing tasks that energise

Feeling dissatisfied with one’s work or experiencing high levels of stress, or even burnout, can all be interpreted as a sign that the individual in question should refocus their efforts towards tasks that are more stimulating and energising. 

Increasing and maintaining home autonomy

Providing employees with a degree of autonomy in their work allows them to have greater motivation towards their job and reduces stress built from feelings of micromanagement. 

Specifically, employers can focus on:

Flexibility: Enable employees to choose how they work. This may include providing them with the freedom to create their own workspaces or allowing them to make their own work schedules. This helps to build trust in workplace relations and create a sense of dependability within employees. 

Fostering a culture of accountability: It is important to establish a culture where employees feel comfortable in taking accountability. Employers must strive to create an environment where employees are encouraged to improve and learn from their mistakes.

Granting employee ownership: Recognise and encourage the abilities and skills employees possess. For instance, if you know that an employee has specific expertise in an area that would be valued for an upcoming task, encourage them to manifest that skill and lead others with their knowledge. 

Being open to employee suggestions/opinions: This can help to develop new insights, challenge preconceived opinions, and unlock new modes of performance. 

Reducing conflicts, both at work and at home

Personal conflicts and clashes, as well as a stressful environment, both at work and at home, tend to have a negative effect on the overall wellbeing of a person.

Improving and maintaining physical health

Exercising and engaging in other physical activities release endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that increase feelings of pleasure, ability to sleep and reduce pain. 

Good sleeping patterns are also known to help employees feel better the next day, including having a higher work engagement and job satisfaction. On the other hand, individuals who have had less hours of sleep are shown to feel disengaged from work, stressed, and more likely to burnout.  

Engaging in relaxing activities

Individuals with high stress levels exhibit faster heart rates, high blood pressure, and high breathing rates. Engaging in relaxing activities such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, mindfulness meditation, and more, has been proven to help bring down these symptoms. 

By bringing focus and attention to the breath and the self, rather than to negative moods and thoughts, employees are better able to reduce their stress and approach work with a healthier mindset. 

Appropriate disengagement from work outside of work hours, also allows for reduced negative emotions towards an individual’s job.

Disengagement is the act of mentally disconnecting yourself from something and keeping it away from your thoughts. If someone is unable to stop thinking about work outside of work hours, then they are more likely to be constantly worried and stressed, leaving them unable to recover.

Instead, by encouraging employers to appropriately disengage themselves from their work stressors when they are outside of their work hours, they will be better able to recover from the issues they encounter at work, thus improving their mental and emotional health.

By providing the means to prevent burnout, minimising stress and strengthening employees’ methods for dealing with stressors in the workplace, the likelihood of burnout occurring decreases drastically. 

With resources such as Leanmote, employees and companies alike are encouraged to take actionable steps towards reducing stress and preventing burnout.

This is done by continuous, in-depth monitoring of employees’ emotional and mental health, to gain insight into their wellbeing and stress levels, and by providing suggestions to employees and managers on what to do if individuals are headed towards burnout.

Measuring different types of stress

Individuals experience stress in different ways, which is why sometimes it becomes difficult to determine when someone is suffering from it. 

Some people may experience stress in a more physical manner, through aches and pains, feelings of tiredness, or even hair and weight loss. Others may instead find that they are affected mentally or emotionally, becoming more anxious or getting less enjoyment or reward out of their daily activities.

All this makes it increasingly hard for organizations to monitor and manage their employees’ wellbeing by themselves. Additionally, a general lack of awareness on these topics makes it harder for people to pick up on the signs of their stress levels and personally understand their wellbeing to a greater extent, which is one of the fundamental premises of stress and burnout management.

How can Leanmote help?

Leanmote can help prevent burnout episodes by providing employees with the opportunity to conduct self-mood assessments and track their overall health. By letting employees take control of their wellbeing they will be able to acknowledge their negative actions and moods (such as stress, anxiety, fatigue, and exhaustion), and engage in actions to mitigate these effects.

It also enables employers to observe trends in their employees’ wellbeing and, in turn, take an active role in formulating strategies to help make their work more manageable. Ultimately, not only does tracking wellbeing allow employees to stay attuned to their behaviours and moods, but it also enables them to engage more with their work and boost job-satisfaction and productivity. 

Actionable data for real stress and burnout management

The global workforce’s long struggle with a continuous decline in productivity levels displays a strong correlation with the slow but steady increase in stress levels amid the working population. That high levels of stress are causing a drop in productivity is no surprise -this much has been acknowledged-, but efforts to curb this trend have so far been scattered and ineffective.

As much talk as there is nowadays about wellbeing and stress management in the workplace, no one seems to know exactly what stress and burnout are or how to manage and prevent them, and company’s which are spending millions of dollars in health and wellbeing trends have little to show for it.

Leanmote’s disruptive approach towards these topics lies in its efforts to make stress and burnout tangible through measuring and analysing hard data, and to propose actions that have been proven to show clear results in preventing burnout and improving employees’ overall health and wellbeing.

Leanmote’s platform provides companies with models that have the potential to transform wellbeing in the workplace and help them make sense of this black box that is stress and burnout, so that they can focus on results and simply reap the benefits of a team that is healthier, more productive, and more engaged in their work.