How to deal with business burnout and work-related stress

Here, Alex Hedger looks at the steps to take to ensure a more productive and less stressful life at work.

Jobs and the business world have changed significantly in the past century. For most, until not so long ago, we lived in what was primarily a ‘manual economy’. Hard and physical labour was the norm.

Today, however, the average job is considerably less physical. In the digital age, we increasingly live in a ‘knowledge economy’ where bodily strength isn’t nearly as important as knowledge, experience and psychological sharpness.

The problem is that our minds haven’t kept up with the psychological demands that today’s ever more complex and ‘always-on’ business world places on them. With small business owners, who traditionally find it harder to keep their personal and work lives separate, this is particularly the case.

The results are increasing levels of work-related stress and anxiety. In fact, a recent report by the UK Health and Safety Executive suggests that ‘the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013/14 was 487,000 (39 per cent) out of a total of 1,241,000 cases for all work-related illnesses’.

Unfortunately, this rise in the number of stressed and anxious employees and business owners is resulting in a more serious and longer-term problem that affects more and more firms today: the burnout of key members of staff, management and the founders themselves. So how do you remedy this?

Traditionally, business coaching was seen as the answer to work-related stress and business burnout. However, there is a growing recognition that while coaching works well as a way to share knowledge among peers, it doesn’t offer the required professional focus to enable the brain to cope better under sustained pressure that psychological resilience skills can.

As a result, the evidence-based resilience techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are increasingly being used in the business world. We’re certainly treating a lot more business owners at our own clinics these days. So what is the gist of what we do?

Well, to cope with the increasing demands of the modern, always-on work environment, we teach the business owners who approach us two main things: 1) how to recognise the signs of work-related stress before they escalate to the stage of burnout, and 2} the tools to increase psychological resilience. Here are some of the most frequent signs of work-related stress.

Signs of work stress:

  • Reduced pleasure and enjoyment at work – and at home, too
  • Regularly feeling uninterested, bored or lacking motivation for your job
  • Reduced productivity – putting in the hours, but having less to show for it
  • Struggling to switch off from work
  • Becoming short-tempered, irritable or aggressive with colleagues or clients
  • Problems concentrating – or becoming easily distracted at work
  • Procrastinating or avoiding work tasks
  • Physical changes such as frequently feeling exhausted or lacking energy
  • Fantasising about leaving work, changing job, or working at a lower level

Now while it’s natural to experience some of these signs some of the time, if you are getting them more regularly, or are experiencing lots of them at once, it may be an early warning sign that either changing your situation is needed, or alternatively that exploring how to boost your resilience is required.

Avoiding burnout

What’s the answer to preventing burnout from work stress – or ‘boosting your resilience’ to use the language of modern CBT?

In truth, there isn’t one answer that fits everyone: since all minds are different, it is important to understand exactly what happens in your mind that leads to work stress. There are, however, some broad areas that are usually good places to start in reducing work stress:

1. Understand your ‘stop signals.’

Do you know when to stop? Trust me, many people don’t. The reason for this is that many of us use signs such as physical fatigue, dwindling concentration or ‘bedtime’ as signals that we have achieved enough. In reality, these tend to be signals that we have already overdone it. Take time to assess how you measure ‘what is enough’. Are there any different ways of measuring this? Less time spent working in your business can often be more.

2. Realise the power of prioritisation and delegation

If you’re following the step above then you’ll know when to stop, but how should you structure your day when you are working? An influential work-study speaker, David Allen, recommends assessing your tasks under the headings of ‘Do’, ‘Defer’ and ‘Delegate’. With this system, consistently ask yourself which heading a task falls under, before plunging straight into trying to complete it. This way, each moment will be used to its maximum potential. What’s more, it will help guard you against exceeding your stop signals.

3. Focus on the needs of the job rather than the need for perfection

Many successful small business owners and corporate executives tend to hold unrealistically high performance standards. There’s good reason for this – when they’re achieved it can lead to high success, recognition and reward. However, there is a risk with these standards. Often they are only achievable for short periods before high side-effect costs, such as burnout creep in. Worse still, if a perfectionistic standard is achieved it can act as a signal that the standard should even be exceeded next time. This pattern often leads to people breaking the first two points above. And so the vicious circle begins.

4. Lead the job, don’t let the job lead you

Winston Churchill once said of alcohol that it makes a good slave but a poor master. The same is true with the tools of the modern workplace such as the mobile phone, laptop and internet. These make many aspects of the working day quicker and simpler, however they also mean it’s more difficult to keep clear boundaries between competing aspects of life. After all, you probably always have your phone on you, or use the internet outside of work. Explore ways that you can reduce the amount that work tools become your master at times you don’t intend them to. Simple changes such as leaving the phone outside the bedroom at night, logging out of your email account, rather than simply trying to ignore the email that popped up on a Saturday afternoon all make small but important differences.

Simple changes

While the areas covered above are general, and quite basic, they give a flavour of how psychological resilience can be increased by making relatively simple changes at work in both the way you and your team operate.

CBT is ultimately about teaching today’s business owners to become much more self-aware about the stresses they are under, and the practical changes that need to be made in order to address them. Manage yourself and your stress levels better, and you will manage your business better.

Alex Hedger is clinical director of Dynamic You.

Further reading on managing stress at work

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