Yes, I get it. The workplace is tougher than ever. It’s a jungle out there, kill or be killed, you’re only as good as your last sale. I get it, I really do. And yes, every organisation needs to find that sweet spot somewhere between not stretching employees enough (leading to ‘rust-out’) and pushing them into the burn-out zone.
But sometimes, even in the best organisations, people will find themselves perilously close to burnout. And – contrary to common myths about stress and depression – these people, more often than not, will be your best people. People who you value. People whose absence you will feel, should they take time off sick. Oh – and they’re people to whom you have a legal duty of care.
So how does a good employer – or a line manager, for that matter – recognise if one of their people is under too much stress, at work or at home? And what can they do to support the employee? Read on for some signs to watch out for, and some guidance:
1. Your “Star Employee” is a good place to start. You’d be wrong to assume that your weakest, poorest performing employee will be the first to succumb to intense stress. In his 2012 book “Depressive Illness: Curse of the Strong”, Psychiatrist Tim Cantopher demonstrates that it is the conscientious workhorses, the “dependables”, the driven self-starters, and the ambitious who are likely to snap first. Because they give a sh*t. When the going gets really tough, they feel the pressure, but respond to it by working that bit harder. Or longer. Or by worrying a bit more about the situation. And there’s only so long you can do that for, until…SNAP.
2. Does everything seem like an emergency? People in the grip of stress often respond by worrying more and more. The cycle of anxiety can eventually become debilitating, but one of the earlier signs is that, at times, their sense of perspective might go out of the window. As an observer, you may find yourself wondering exactly what the emergency is, when in fact the issue at hand is relatively hum-drum and maybe even unimportant.
3. Have they taken more days off with “migraines” recently? Of course, it’s very possible that they do indeed suffer from migraines, or a similar complaint. But people who are feeling close to burn-out are often unable or unwilling to talk about it with colleagues, for fear of appearing vulnerable. God knows, there’s still enough stigma about mental illness around, to make talking about it feel very unsafe in some workplaces. So when that employee is so stressed that they can’t face dragging themselves out of bed, “I’ve got a migraine” might be the go-to reason which masks a more worrying truth.
4. Mood changes. Do you employ someone who used to be the office joker, and now barely cracks a smile? Or who was once able to handle the curviest of curveballs, but now loses their temper when confronted with the slightest of setbacks? Do you find yourself increasingly treading on eggshells around someone? These are all potential signs that that person is getting close to their limit in terms of stress management. You may even have already seen their performance start to tail off.
5. Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. Ok so it might not be that exciting, but maybe you’ve noticed that someone in your team has started smoking recently. Or they’ve begun having a few too many drinks on work night outs. They may have started gambling, or engaging in other more…risky…activities. In general, you may have found yourself wondering about their welfare. Again, it’s the change in behaviours which is the key indicator, particularly where the behaviour seems particularly out-of-character.
So what can I do?
Maybe you’ve ticked off one or two of the items above, and are thinking that you’ve possibly got a stressed employee on your hands. It’s probably somebody who you’ve rated highly in the past; maybe you still do. A perfectly good question to ask now would be “So, how can I help him or her? (And in doing so, indirectly help my business?)”
Of course, one thing that you can do would be to encourage them to talk about what’s on their mind. As a business leader, you’re in such a strong position to set a supprtive tone within the organisation – one which recognises that no-one is superhuman. And one in which people can speak up about things that are troubling them. As they’re likely to be one of your more conscientious employees, you might need to reassure them that it’s okay to speak up; to give themselves a break; to relax a bit. But most of all, you will need to listen, and listen good.
You could suggest that they speak to their GP. NHS waiting lists for counselling are now shorter than ever (although still way too long in many areas), so that could be an option. Or you might want to suggest – and maybe even fund – some sessions with a private counsellor. Six to twelve sessions of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – has been proven to be very effective for anxiety, stress and some forms of depression.
You could point them towards the plethora of resources on the internet, such as at mind.org.uk, to help them better understand what is going on, and to reassure them that they are not alone in experiencing what they’re going through.
As well as offering one-to-one CBT sessions for people already experiencing stress, I also run a series of “Beating Stress” group workshops – a pre-emptive strike against the perils of burn-out which will help your people remain at their best in the face of increasing pressure. These can be tailored to the particular needs of your organisation, or bought off-the-shelf. In either case, they represent a sound investment in the wellbeing of your staff, and in the health of your overall business. If you’d like to find out more, give me a call on 07961 363621.