Feeling Overworked and Overwhelmed? Discover the Best Ways to Bring Your Life Back to Balance
After reading some of the available statistics on workplace stress, and having experienced burnout at work myself, I wanted to write a piece to encourage everyone to look again at their work-life balance. Having had, and luckily recovered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the past, I know what I’m talking about! In the year preceding the onset of the syndrome, I didn’t take a single proper holiday from work, managing with just a few long weekends rest. By the autumn I was finished – and it took three long years before I fully regained my health (and changed my life).
So, in this article, I’ll be looking at the causes and effects of working too hard and offering some suggestions for developing a healthier life strategy. The importance of getting this right cannot be emphasised too strongly. The lack of balance experienced between our jobs and the rest of our lives is something I have heard so many people complain about that it’s clear most of us could be doing better for ourselves. And must do better at if we hope to lead lives of fulfilment and wellbeing.
Burnout: The Facts
The term ‘burnout’ was first used about workplace stress back in 1974:
“In 1974, Herbert Freudenberger became the first researcher to publish in a psychology-related journal a paper that used the term "burnout." The paper was based on his observations of the volunteer staff (including himself) at a free clinic for drug addicts. He characterized burnout by a set of symptoms that includes exhaustion resulting from work's excessive demands as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and sleeplessness, "quickness to anger," and closed thinking. He observed that the burned-out worker "looks, acts, and seems depressed." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupational_burnout)
We often joke about being ‘overworked and underpaid’ – the net is full of memes on the topic.
But it would seem, that the condition is reaching epidemic proportions and is actually far from a joke.
In the UK the 2018 Labour Force Survey (LFS) analysed figures for workplace stress. http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/lfs/index.htm
Their findings showed that there were 594,00 “workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing)” in 2017/18, with 15.4 million “working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety”.
The biggest contributor to these shocking statistics, at 44%, was identified as workload, with a lack of managerial support (14%) and organisational change (8%) as the other significant factors.
In the USA it’s no better. A Statista survey from 2018, showed 64% of American adults (and 77% of Gen Z adults) identifying work as their most common stressor.
In her September article '42 Worrying Workplace Stress Statistics', for the American Institute for Stress, Milja Milenkovic quotes these figures:
“83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress.
US businesses lose up to $300 billion yearly as a result of workplace stress.
Stress causes around one million workers to miss work every day
Only 43% of US employees think their employers care about their work-life balance.
Depression leads to $51 billion in costs due to absenteeism and $26 billion in treatment costs.
Work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths and results in $190 billion in healthcare costs yearly.”
On a big scale, this affects our national economies; on a small scale, it’s wrecking people’s lives.
And yes, a small dose of stress can be beneficial and help motivate us to achieve success. It’s also necessary for our survival instincts. But long term, unrelenting emotional stress causes our minds and bodies nothing but harm.
The UK Government defines work-related stress, depression or anxiety:
“as a harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work”
In May this year, the World Health Organisation re-defined the condition known as burnout. It is now no longer classed medically as a stress syndrome but as an “occupational phenomenon”.
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy."
However, it needs acknowledging that the above characteristics will certainly impact other areas of your life if you are suffering from them.
Our lives are not lived in separate boxes with no connection between them. Whatever is happening to you in one area will impact all the others, be it positively or negatively. We can choose to believe in separation but this is illusory. As the stress and emotional discomfort build up in your work life the effects bleed out into your relationships, your family life and most of all your health – on every level. The less conscious we are of this, the greater the impact will be.
There is a stigma attached to burnout and, depending on the workplace, people can feel shame about experiencing it. If your workplace is not supportive of taking a slower, person-centred approach and if everyone around you is working the same way, it can lead you to dismiss the symptoms. You may not take immediate action and could possibly work even harder instead!
If there is a generally held belief in your workplace that these symptoms are nothing serious – ‘it’s just a cold, stop moaning and push through it’ - taking your suffering seriously and investing in self-care may be seen as ‘weak’ by those around you.
And it’s not so great for employers either. CEO’s and managers may encourage overworking (perhaps without realising it – they are workers too, after all) but ultimately their workforce will become ever less productive. And less productivity equals less profits. If you have created, or contribute to, a work culture where being constantly busy is applauded, where it’s believed employees should be available to handle emails and calls, regardless of other commitments and time off, and reward and recognise staff who work at night, weekends and whilst on holiday, then maybe it’s time to think again.
“If your job relies on interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotional reactions — pretty much all things that the modern office requires — I have more bad news. Researchers have found that overwork (and its accompanying stress and exhaustion) can make all of these things more difficult. Even if you enjoy your job and work long hours voluntarily, you’re simply more likely to make mistakes when you’re tired — and most of us tire more easily than we think we do. Only 1-3% of the population can sleep five or six hours a night without suffering some performance drop-off. Moreover, for every 100 people who think they’re a member of this sleepless elite, only five actually are. The research on the performance-destroying effects of sleeplessness alone should make everyone see the folly of the all-nighter. Work too hard and you also lose sight of the bigger picture. Research has suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to get lost in the weeds. In sum, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.” Sarah Green Carmichael
As many companies downsize, enormous pressures are placed on the remaining staff. It’s not uncommon for employees to find themselves doing the work of three people.
This forces them to take work home, work extra, usually unpaid hours in the office, or be working paid overtime as a ‘normal’ and regular part of their job. No matter how hard and efficiently they work they will never catch up.
All those extra hours worked negate their holiday time - their chance to rest and recover. Let’s assume an average working week of 40 hours with 47 working weeks in the year: if you work only five hours extra each week, that equates to over 29 working days over the year. Now multiply that by 20 staff. The company just gained 580 days of work – for free! Except the hidden cost may not make the exploitation (let’s try for some honesty here and call it what it is) worth it in the long run. Managers – this may be normalised, but it is not reasonable; you’ll reap the rewards in an unhealthy and unhappy workforce, lost productivity and increased sick days and staff churn.
The Difference Between Burnout and Stress Symptoms
Put simply, burnout is about ‘not enough’. Not enough energy, not enough motivation. A feeling of being dried-up, finished and done. Of no longer giving a damn, with no hope of change.
Stress on the other hand is about ‘too much’: too much pressure for too long, too many demands that never ever let up. But stressed people believe that if they could get their lives back under control, then they would be ok again.
· blunted emotions
· disengaged from colleagues and from tasks
· detachment and depression
· feeling like life is no longer worth living
· reduced productivity and effectiveness
· Continual physical, mental and emotional exhaustion
· Sense of failure and self doubt
· constant minor illnesses
· difficulty breathing
· weight loss/gain
· avoiding people
· A feeling of dread before or after work
· Feeling overwhelmed
· Panic attacks
· Crying but not knowing why
Another set of symptoms that your manager and your doctor are unlikely to discuss with you, that apply to both burnout and stress are:
· doubt – ‘How could ‘God/Source/the Universe let this happen to me?’
· strain – ‘God/Source/the Universe is so far away from me – I can’t feel the connection anymore’
· disconnection – ‘God/Source/the Universe has abandoned me. I’m alone.’
“Underneath our nice, friendly facades there is great unease. If I were to scratch below the surface of anyone, I would find fear, pain, and anxiety running amok. We all have ways to cover them up. We overeat, over-drink, overwork; we watch too much television”. Joko Beck
So, there are a lot of impacts if we don’t take the time (and seek the support) to examine how we are working and where stress is building in our lives. If we don’t do this, it’s all too easy to create habits which numb those distressing feelings but end up causing us more harm. Heavy drinking, overeating, over exercising and recreational drug use for example, are all self-medicating behaviours which dull our senses. Whilst providing temporary relief, in the long term they serve to keep us asleep to our pain; disempower us from action and creating healthy lives. In the long term, it all adds up to serious health impacts – a poorly functioning immune system, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer.
“Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” – Unknown
Maintaining a Work Life Balance
The straightforward answer to overwork is to stop doing it. But most of you out there would find this pretty difficult. Our jobs have become part of our identity. If we stop working so hard, what does that mean for our sense of self?
“…overwork is not defined by the amount of our day work occupies but by the amount of our selves tied up to it. We “over” work not when we work too hard but when working becomes less of a means and more of an end. When meditation, exercise, sleep, holidays, and even parenting, are cast as tools to make us better workers.” Gianpiero Petriglieri
If you admit that you are working too hard will it bruise your ego? Are you prepared to spend introspective time assessing your hidden and underlying insecurities and anxieties around your behaviour? And when you find the answer what will change mean to your sense of who you are?
Assess your situation:
Saying yes to more work means saying no to other valuable aspects of your life. Take a good look at your priorities.
Review your long-term goals – in work and in your life as a whole. Is what you are doing on a daily basis taking you in the best direction to reach them? Are you spending your limited time on the planet wisely?
Notice the impacts of your work, not just on yourself but on those around you. How’s your marriage doing? How are your kids? Are you delivering great results in your job? How are your relationships at work? Be honest.
You may find work has become all-encompassing with no room in your mind or your life for anything else; you may be experiencing some of the symptoms discussed. If so, you have to find a way to call a halt.
Take Action - NOW.
Challenge your assumptions and daily habits. You may be getting a lot done, but is it a lot of the right things? Increase your productivity by spending less time on tasks that create the least value.
Understand how you like to work, but also how you work best. When you know, change your routines as much as possible to allow your best to become easier to deliver.
Set good boundaries. Let colleagues know when you will no longer be available. If you don’t respect your own time no one else will. Do not work outside the limits you set – and spend the time gained on yourself, your family, your friends.
Learn how to say ‘NO’.
Limit your contact with negative people – they will affect your mood and outlook.
Use tools to help you organise and prioritise your work in new and better ways
Speak to your manager or HR representative. Be honest and ask for help.
Take a holiday, or extended work break if possible. Use this time wisely, with self-reflection that can move you to better experiences when you return.
As a manager, focus on healthy leadership and set good examples with your own behaviour. It’s through your personal actions that staff will know their own health and wellbeing matter to the organisation. Do not praise employees for working when they are sick or on holiday.
Once you have left the office, do absolutely nothing relating to work. That includes thinking about it. You may want to share your day with those at home – but be conscious of how long you spend on this. Keep it short. If you need to vent, do it, but set yourself a time limit. Then move on.
Take a break from technology. Turn off your phone and laptop. Disconnect for some quiet time every day.
Plan your days so that non-work activities are built into your routine and are in your diary.
Speak to your GP about your health concerns.
Address your stress and the underlying emotional reasons behind it. Seek support from a therapist or coach.
Cut down on drinking and other self damaging behaviour. Seek support if you need it.
Talk to people you trust about how you’re feeling. Spend time with those you love.
Get your eating and exercise habits back on track. It takes time to develop healthy routines again once they are lost. Take one step at a time and be kind to yourself.
Sleep. If you have insomnia take steps to build a bedtime routine that helps prepare you for sleeping.
Learn to meditate or practise mindfulness.
Practise gratitude. Make a daily practise of counting up everything in your life you’re grateful for in that moment. Write it down.
Renew your soul – with whatever does it for you. Time in nature. Charitable work (there’s always someone worse off than you). Creative activities of any kind. Listening to music.
Looking Forward to 2020?
We are almost standing on the threshold of a new decade. As we move towards it, make some good life choices that will carry you through the next 10 years. Spend some time getting clear about the changes you need to make and set out your plan for 10 years filled with wellbeing and love, joy and balance.
Stop overworking. Please end it now. When you lie on your deathbed, will you regret that you didn’t spend your life working hard enough? I don’t think so somehow. If you need help or advice then please seek it and take the steps necessary to improve your situation. Life and work don’t have to be so hard.
Please share your comments and experiences of this topic below. The more it gets discussed and read about, the easier change becomes.
There are some free resources at www.healingenergy.love/resources which help with personal growth and development. To read my short ebook discussing the differences between self-care and self love, and how to develop the latter please visit my author page on Amazon at:
If you want to explore coaching as a means to help you create better balance in your life please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on 01253 3462098.