Battling burnout: it’s time to abandon the culture of overworking

The facts speak for themselves: one in four employees blame work as the primary cause of poor mental health. Twelve billion working days are lost every year to stress and depression at a cost of more than £650 billion to the world's economy. Half of all employees do not feel their workplace is an emotionally healthy environment, with 55 per cent of organisations having no formal strategy for handling employee wellbeing. Absenteeism increased 25 per cent over the course of the past year in the UK, highlighting that burnout is set to get worse, not better.

Stress levels are now past breaking point

The high-pressure problem
A typical commercial jet cruises at around 36,000 ft, while many military jets are able to fly considerably higher. So what differentiates these aircraft besides the bravado of the pilot? Fundamentally, their inherent resilience.

Ironic then, that those at the higher echelons of organisations should be so ill-equipped for life in the fast lane. For those earning ballpark six-figure salaries, shouldering significant corporate responsibility and maintaining a tight work-life balance, the pressures and expectations to maintain sky-high performance are exceptional - ordinary people, capitalising on extraordinary talent.

We know it often requires things to get toxic before any significant change is triggered in the workplace. First it was gender, then there was race, disability, religion and sexuality. It wouldn't be the first time something profoundly in need of an overhaul has been dismissed as shallow and frivolous by a shortsighted economy. Following on from the recent royal evangelical call to arms, from Prince William and Prince Harry, the nation's high achievers need to be more proactive in terms of facing up to mental health instead of waiting for the cracks to appear, when action is far less effective and far more costly. 

Matt Murphy

Studies have shown those in competitive and high-pressure roles will work hard regardless of exhaustion, stress, eating disorders, or even clinical mental conditions, doing whatever is required in order to get the work done. Job cuts in corporate hubs and increasing expectations to do more with less means stress levels are now past breaking point. It's a question of when and not if for most. 

Recreational drugs, excessive caffeine, antidepressant medication and promiscuous behaviour are but a few of the supposed panaceas offering respite - masking the swelling underlying issues rather than tackling them.

The wellbeing solution
Yes, mental health has a silver lining: the individual, the employer, the team and the entire business can benefit significantly from seemingly minor interventions. New research this year from the University Of East Anglia reveals that feelings of being supported at work can help prevent emotional exhaustion and create happiness, building resilience, which in turn produces higher productivity rates. Everybody wins and there's a resilience intervention to fit every company budget.

A healthier body means a healthier mind. Swap the supermarket chocolates and chemical grade coffee for fresh local produce

How organisations can boost wellbeing…

Managerial mental health training
Create a supportive working environment almost immediately. Courses for line managers are tailored at improving awareness and understanding of mental health at work, how work can impact on staff and how to broach the subject, making referrals where necessary. 
Flexible working
Allow staff to balance their personal and working life and be more flexible about managing their health, whether it be controlling daily habits such as meditation and fitness or even taking medication and tucking the children in at night.
Make healthy options appealing
A healthier body means a healthier mind. Swap the supermarket chocolates and chemical grade coffee for fresh, local, independent-branded produce. Studies show that something as small as even a better selection of tea can create a culture that stimulates collaboration and productivity.

The key is to have a deliberate wellbeing strategy that provides all employees with structure at all times, not just those in need

Engage with a coach 
Executive coaching is a great way to improve confidence, communication and create vitality in the workforce. The Chartered Institute Of Personnel And Development conducted research concluding that individuals being coached become more engaged and enthusiastic in their day-to-day work in addition to becoming more proactive as their confidence levels increase. Qualified coaching targeted specifically at wellbeing can have a whole team performing at their top level. 

The positive impacts will flow throughout the organisation, while improvements in key staff retention, productivity, attendance, quality of work and morale - not to mention the resulting competitive advantage in the marketplace - prove addressing mental wellbeing isn't so frivolous after all.

Identify the negative thinking behind your feelings and literally write it out

The key is to have a deliberate wellbeing strategy that provides all employees with structure at all times, not just those in need. 

Internal buddy-ups:
Meetings once a month between younger and older generations of employees from different departments encourage insight-sharing between very different perspectives on work life.

Matt Murphy

The Thought Record: How to build on your individual wellbeing

"The Thought Record" is a mental checklist that helps you reframe negative thoughts, process problems and readdress their impact on your working practices. Remember, you can't always control what happens, but you can control how you react. Once you practice, you can start doing it in your head if you find yourself becoming anxious. Draw up a simple table and brain dump your thoughts under each of the following categories:

The situation/trigger 
Briefly describe the situation that led to your unpleasant feelings. For example, "An argument or an upcoming interview."
Your emotional reaction
What do you feel in response to the trigger/confrontation? For example, "Anxiety, guilt, anger, doubt or fear."
Unhelpful thoughts and images
Identify the negative thinking behind your feelings and literally write it out. For example, "My interview is going to go horribly and my wife is going to think I'm bad at my job."
Process the negativity
Find evidence that supports your unhelpful thought.. For example, "My wife has told me in the past that she thinks I lack confidence." 
Counter the argument
Facts that provide evidence against your unhelpful thoughts. For example, "I have worked on my interview skills since my last interview and I have improved." 
Reassess
Now that you've considered the facts, write down a healthier, more balanced way of thinking. For example, "While I have struggled with interviews before, I'm fully prepared now and have no proof that it won't go well."
Outcome
Rate how you feel now. "Less anxious, calmer, reassured."
Repeat throughout the day as required
The more you do it, the more impact it will have.

Christopher Harvey is the founder of coaching firm Harvey Sinclair: The Executive Wellbeing Experts. For more information, visit harvey-sinclair.com

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