Burnout exacerbates work stress far more than vice-versa, according to research from Germany. In an empirical analysis of 48 longitudinal studies on burnout and work stress involving 26,300 participants, scholars found evidence that challenged – or at least relativised – the common perception that work stress is the driving force behind burnout.
“This means that the more severe a person’s burnout becomes, the more stressed they will feel at work, such as being under time pressure, for example,” said Christian Dormann, professor of business education and management at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), in a recent statement. (JGU Press Office via EurekAlert!, 10 November 2020)
The studies included in JGU’s analysis were published between 1986 and 2019, and emerged from primarily European nations, but also covered Israel, the US, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, China and Taiwan.
Once burnout begins, the research found, it develops only very gradually, and builds up slowly over time. Ultimately it leads to work being increasingly perceived as stressful: The amount of work is too much, time is too short, and work stress is too great.
JGU’s Dr Christina Guthier – first author of the research – explained: “When exhausted, the ability to cope with stress usually decreases. As a result, even smaller tasks can be perceived as significantly more strenuous.” She noted: “We expected [to see] an effect of burnout on work stress; [but] the strength of the effect was very surprising.”
Dormann and Guthier say that their analysis has opened up a new research area, because the “strong boomerang effect” of burnout on work stress has not been properly investigated. In their view, key questions that must be addressed in practical terms are:
- how can the effects of burnout on perceived work stress be reduced, and
- how can the development of this vicious circle be prevented?
Dormann and Guthier suggest that the best place to start is management behaviour: the effects of burnout on work stress can be mitigated if staff have more control over their own work. In addition, employees should have the opportunity to provide feedback on their stress at any time and be appreciated. Last but not least, proper recovery with the benefit of management support could also help to arrest the downward spiral.
Are they on the money with their recommendations?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Mental health has been moving up the corporate agenda for a number of years, thanks to initiatives such as Business in the Community (BITC), of which the Institute is part. In tandem, well-known brands such as Iceland and Innocent Drinks have produced fantastic mental health support resources for their staff, and other firms have implemented employee assistance programmes and special mental health helplines. All of those developments are extremely positive.
“However, as research from the Institute and elsewhere has shown, Covid-19 has exacerbated the pressures that lead to poor mental health. While often a contributing factor, work is in some cases the sole factor at this time. With that in mind, JGU has picked a valuable moment to flag up the problems of burnout: that it builds up over time and, as a result, things seem more stressful than they already were. That magnification of stress adds to the perception that one is unable to cope, that tasks are harder to complete, and that one must devote more and more time to work while scaling back time for self-care.”
Cooper notes: “For line managers and senior staff, the key is early intervention: to recognise that once someone has reached that place of anxiety – where they are concerned all the time about work and sacrificing activities that would enable them to work well – burnout is the inevitable result. Managers who spot early-warning signs must not be afraid to start a conversation with the affected employee. Meanwhile, HR departments must put in place all the vital resources and mental health awareness training systems that have been shown to improve people’s quality of life at work.”
She adds: “Another reason why we have a greater recognition of mental health now than in previous eras is because organisations are increasingly recruiting workplace counsellors and other in-house specialists to keep an eye on employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. The real challenge now is that with so many staff working from home, leaders’ ability to control people’s physical environment is almost non-existent. But the impetus and need to be mindful of workers’ mental and emotional wellbeing has significantly grown.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace