As holidays fade and the working year springs into focus, some of us might feel dread. How can work stress creep up? And what are the signs of burnout?
Paula Davis remembers all too well the feeling that would overcome her after just a few weeks back at work following a blissful break. Like many of us, she would take annual leave and try to forget about the workload, the petty office politics, the anxiety-inducing emails – and for a few days it would work. But then, as a new working year loomed, it was as if the leave had never happened. The now-former lawyer sums it up in a single word: dread.
Eventually, Davis diagnosed the cause: chronic burnout that no amount of leave could cure, and went on to write a book, Beating Burnout at Work, in the hope of helping others manage workplace stress.
Many of us have experienced similar feelings – or will over the next few weeks as the working year begins in earnest and we encounter, once again, those gossipy co-workers, pointless mandatory meetings and, now that school’s back, too, the unavoidable and impossible “work-life” juggle. These daily hurdles don’t even need to be particularly noteworthy to impact our quality of life and physical wellbeing; indeed, as a pair of US academics have explained, seemingly trivial “micro-stresses” can ripple outwards like a stone thrown into a pond.
So how can we create a more congenial life this year? How is it that people seem to do it so much better in some other countries (such as France, home of the multi-course lunch and month-long summer holiday)? Is there anything in quiet quitting, lazy-girl jobs and silent partners? And might you suffer from ergophobia?
What is it about workplaces …?
The frustrations and indignities of paid toil have long provided a wealth of material for social observers. US poet Theodore Roethke spoke of the “inexorable sadness” of pencils and manila folders. British poet laureate John Betjeman hated watching the one-time village of Slough being turned into an industrial park in the 1930s, bemoaning its “air-conditioned, bright canteens, tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans, tinned minds, tinned breath”. Though pity the young clerks, he implored. “It’s not their fault that they are mad, they’ve tasted Hell.” Slough was naturally the go-to location for The Office, the BBC sitcom written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant about awful bosses and make-work paper shuffling.
Charles Dickens was perhaps the most penetrating critic of the emerging modern workplace with his withering descriptions of lawyers’ offices (Bleak House), workhouses (Oliver Twist) and the grimy streets of Hard Times, “inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next”. Oof.
Much of our behaviour at work remains inexorably influenced by unconscious patterns laid down in our childhood.
We do, overall, have it better today. For many, work is not necessarily “Hell” but a setting in which we hope to find personal satisfaction, build relationships, achieve ambitions and earn enough to fund a decent lifestyle. Yet beneath its laminated surface, the modern workplace can still be a conflict zone, fraught with anxiety, paranoia and narcissism. At least, that’s the picture painted by London psychotherapist Naomi Shragai in her book, Work Therapy, or The Man Who Mistook His Job for His Life.
Based on her conversations with clients, Shragai describes a world of perfectionists, people-pleasers, gossips and bullies, suggesting that much of our behaviour at work remains inexorably influenced by unconscious patterns laid down in our childhood. “We all carry unresolved conflicts inside us that we’re not aware of much of the time,” she tells us from London. “If unchecked, these unconscious motivations can sabotage our ambitions and desires.”
One client had particular issues with female superiors. “He always imagined they were undermining him and intending to make him look bad. But, of course, that wasn’t the case. What he was actually reacting to was a historic relationship with his own mother, who was very intrusive, wanted to know everything about him, and always made him feel as if he was bad.” Another client was convinced his boss was a bully, yet that did not match co-workers’ assessments. “Why did my client misread his boss as being a bully? As it turned out, it’s because his father was.”
That’s the Freudian flavour to Shragai’s work, but she is equally interested in how organisations make an impact on us, and we on them – “a mix between psychoanalytic and systemic practices”. Ironically, she says, people from difficult backgrounds navigate this landscape most readily – “in their home life, they had to be hyper-vigilant and the same hypervigilance can be a superpower in the workplace” – while those who have enjoyed comfortable upbringings can both struggle to read toxic situations and collapse at the first sign of negative feedback. “It’s not all plain sailing for these people who come from wonderful, warm, caring backgrounds.”
What’s the difference between stress and burnout?
You know the feeling: something happens – a snide comment, a harsh email, an aggressive driver during your commute – and your shoulders tighten, the adrenaline pumps, perhaps there’s a pain in your stomach. What’s happening physiologically, says neurobiologist Seena Mathew, is “you release cortisol when you are stressed and your body returns to ‘normal’ after the stressful event has subsided”.
“If you are experiencing constant stress, then you will have cortisol released for extended periods of time. This can lead to fatigue as your body is running in a constant fight or flight state, constantly driven by the sympathetic nervous system.”
The trouble with micro-stresses, they say, is they go unrecognised and so are inadequately processed.
This chronic stress, says Mathew, from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, can lead to various unwanted physical ailments, including lower immune system functioning, increased inflammatory responses, and an increase in muscle tension and pain. It has also been associated with cell ageing, disrupted blood-sugar levels and poor sleep.
“A lot of people are chronically stressed, which can lead to burnout,” says Perth psychologist Marny Lishman, who defines burnout as “a more kind of severe and chronic state of not just stress but emotional, physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion”. Panic attacks and depression disorders are burnout’s bedfellows, along with what was coined in the 19th century as ergophobia – the excessive fear of the workplace – from the Greek “ergon” (work) and “phobos” (fear), which is not specifically listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders but probably should be.
We might be less aware of what authors Rob Cross and Karen Dillon call the micro-stress effect: tiny, “pernicious” triggers. “Micro-stresses may be hard to spot individually, but cumulatively they pack an enormous punch,” they write in Harvard Business Review. “For example, if your teammates fail to complete a key task, you’ll have to clean up their under-delivery and have an uncomfortable conversation about what happened. In addition, you’ll have to ask your partner to take your child to the dentist, even though it’s your turn and the child likes that you always remember to pack their favourite toy. And beyond that, you might not have time to work on a professional development project as you’d planned to.”
Cross and Dillon explain that a healthy person usually responds to typical everyday stress – being admonished by the boss, bearing down on a deadline – through something called allostasis, which helps re-regulate our system after a stressful encounter (typically described as the fight or flight response a caveman experienced after coming across a dentally over-endowed tiger). The trouble with micro-stresses, they say, is they go unrecognised and so are inadequately processed.
Even micro-stresses can lead to burnout, they warn, or at least have us on the edge of it. Which tallies with the experience of Paula Davis, who describes burnout as an insidious malaise that creeps up on you, even if you try to deny its existence. “You might think, ‘Wow, I just have to deal with this’, or ‘I’ve got bills to pay’ or ‘It’s, you know, our busy season’. We try and explain it away. And then the further down the road you go with burnout, bigger decisions have to be made. You may need to ask, is this the right team that I’m on? Am I working at the right organisation? Is this really what I want to be doing?”
So how can we minimise the effects of work stress?
Short term, there are many ways you can decompress around work, although they might be Band-Aid fixes if the real problem is your employer, not you. Any decent GP will tell you to cut down on alcohol (a glass of wine or two at knock-off might help you unwind but increases your vulnerability to anxiety and other maladies in the long run); ditto smoking. Coffee is a more personal thing, but dozens of espresso shots a day are unlikely to help you relax. Exercise is obviously good, especially if it floods your system with dopamine, the chemical that gives you a feeling of wellbeing. Even a decent walk will go some way to doing the trick.
Then there’s a host of more creative suggestions. Visit a forest, say Japanese researchers, for a spot of shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”). Take three deep breaths, say plenty of psychologists. Pause and mentally name the capitals of 20 countries or the 50 states of the United States (don’t forget Hawaii and Alaska). “Check in with your toes. How do they feel? Wiggle them,” suggests TheNew York Times. Try systematic muscle relaxation, clenching and relaxing the muscles in first your hands, then arms, then shoulders … and so on for up to an hour. Or buy a skipping rope, rub a piece of velvet or write down your worries, which apparently helps.
Or try a dose of even more stress. The University of California San Francisco has examined the fundamentals of “hormetic stress”, the theory that short, sharp shocks to the system can build resilience or even reverse chronic damage. Techniques include hyperventilating, deliberately holding your breath, intermittent fasting, or – as the Scandinavians knew long before universities were invented – taking ice baths or going cold-water swimming.
Former journalist Annie Lawson draws on a far older method of self-preservation: Stoicism, the ancient philosophy that seems to be having a moment today (founded by Zeno in about 300BC, popularised back in the day by Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius). Lawson was forced to re-think her attitude to work when she moved into corporate life and lost much of the autonomy she had previously counted on. She recalls: “There was a day where I had four meetings with the same people but in different meeting rooms, essentially talking about the same thing. I had this existential crisis: Oh my God, I’m going to die and my only legacy will be sitting in meetings with people using language like ‘deep dive’ and ‘strategic paradigm’.”
In the self-help section of a bookshop, she found Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, one-time Roman emperor and follower of Stoic philosophy. “It grabbed me. The central principle that underpins it is, do not worry about what you can’t control but focus on what you can control. And I think if you take that to the workplace, it’s amazing how many little irritants just fall away.”
Another key principle of Stoicism, she says, is having a sense of purpose and drive – or work ethic – and to expect that in pursuing goals, you will encounter obstacles, among them annoying people. “And when you do that, you will not be disappointed, you’ll be well-prepared – because the workplace is, quite frankly, filled with them.”
Many of the experts we spoke with agreed that opting out of office politics is rarely a solution. Says Shragai: “People are always moaning about work politics but, essentially, politics is relationships. So people who say, ‘I don’t do politics’, what they’re saying is, ‘I don’t relate to people and I’m not very interested in what’s going on here’.”
‘As soon as I let go of my identity being entirely wrapped up with work then I felt freer in the workplace and, in many respects, I think I performed better.’
Author Annie Lawson
Instead, sit back and try to understand what makes the people around you tick, what motivates them, and amend your behaviour accordingly, especially if you’re a manager. Personality profiling is, of course, nothing new but there are some broadbrush ideas that can help, according to Michelle Duval, the founder of F4S, a company that, among other things, uses AI to improve online communication between colleagues.
Duval has collected data, for example, suggesting that, broadly, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers thrive when they have specific goals to achieve. “But when we look at Millennials and Gen Z, they have nearly zero focus on goals.” Instead, she says, younger workers may be more process-oriented, preferring to solve problems and overcome challenges as they arise. “We help by helping people to understand themselves and to understand their team, and then to be able to motivate managers based on the people you’re working with.”
Lawson eventually adapted some of what she learnt into her own self-help book, Stoic at Work, which examines how the Stoics welcomed feedback of all kinds, why you should be wary of compliments (flattery can derail you from your purpose) and whether, just perhaps, that annoying colleague is actually you. This year, she says, “I went back [to work] without the sense of dread I know everyone has where they think, ‘Maybe I should change jobs’. Because I thought, what is my grand purpose? And I’ve just meditated on that problem. What do I really want out of life?”
Her conclusion? “My grander purpose isn’t just the job I have. And the thing that makes me happy is having a creative outlet and a social life and family. As soon as I let go of my identity being entirely wrapped up with work then I felt freer in the workplace and, in many respects, I think I performed better.”
What about the bigger picture, though?
Sometimes, of course, the problem is not you, it’s them. The workplace might be actually unprofessional and unpleasant. Or your immediate boss truly is a psychopath. No amount of toe-wiggling is going to help that. “We have to stop thinking about preventing burnout as solely something that individuals have the ability to do or that they should do,” says Davis. “Burnout is the individual manifestation of a workplace system or culture issue.”
Many seem to have come to this conclusion post-pandemic, after a period spent working from home shone a light on irritating workplace practices we had previously considered were a given. If you believe what you read on social media, by 2022-23 our younger generations were either resigning en masse (the Great Resignation, presumably for those who could afford it), “quiet quitting” (doing the bare minimum), or hoping to snag a “lazy girl job” (which seems to be a sinecure that pays the rent and perhaps funds overseas holidays). “Silent partners”, meanwhile, are apparently colleagues who turn off the Zoom camera, say nothing in meetings, make Monday their in-office day and quietly slink into obscurity, albeit while getting their work done.
Yet there was something in the new terms, says US author Sarah Jaffe. “What quiet quitting, in particular, describes is something that organised labour refers to as work to rule, which is a process of doing exactly what your job description is, often in meticulous detail, and no more, as a way of exerting power.” (Jaffe recently published Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone.) Just be careful it doesn’t backfire, she warns. “If you’re the only one at your workplace doing the bare minimum, and all your co-workers are still doing the most, staying late, eventually your boss will notice and then you’re in trouble.”
One Swedish council even considered a scheme to give municipal employees a paid hour every week to go home and have sex.
This pushback seems a little depressing, however, when considering the alternative – trusted co-operation between employer and employees that helps everybody integrate their work and life.Evidence suggests that, at least in some industries, shorter working hours can benefit everybody. Some trials of so-called four-day weeks (typically spreading between 30 and 32 hours over a working week) have resulted in measurable reductions in burnout, lower stress overall and a 44 per cent drop in absenteeism. Several four-day trials in Iceland between 2015 and 2019 suggested workers’ wellbeing improved with no hit to productivity. Another study of Australian organisations reviewed by Swinburne University researchers reported some workplaces even had a productivity bump.
Yet the jury remains out: while a long-term trial, run over two years in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, that cut hours to six a day, showed multiple benefits for workers, it came at an unsustainable cost, thanks to having to employ extra staff to fill gaps in sectors such as aged care that required round-the-clock staffing.
Even working full-time, however, the Swedes routinely enjoy perks we can only dream of: a cash allowance to spend on wellbeing activities, “fika” – the sacrosanct workday ritual of meeting for coffee and pastry – and flexible working hours . In 2017, one Swedish council even considered a scheme to give municipal employees a paid hour every week to go home and have sex. The Spanish still cherish siestas, even though surveys suggest fewer people actually take one these days. The French, too, guard their spare time as if their lives depend on it. For many, a month-long summer holiday remains de rigueur. An hour must be reserved for a proper lunch – indeed, eating at your desk is strongly discouraged. And more than 1 million people took to the streets last year to protest against plans to extend the state pension retirement age from 62 to 64 (in Australia, it’s 67).
What we do have in Australia is a culture of long weekends – mini breaks that can sometimes do more good than longer holidays, since they demand zero planning and require little more than relaxing. The “hack” is to add some days of annual leave. Many Australians can, for example, organise 16 days off in March and April this year by booking an additional eight days of annual leave around the Easter public holidays, and another nine consecutive days with an annual-leave burn of just four days around the King’s Birthday in June.
Then, when you’re back at work again, incorporate a little of what you found most relaxing on leave into your day-to-day, says Lishman. “Whether it’s going for a swim or going for a sunset walk. How can you incorporate that into your life on a weekly basis, not just on your holidays? You don’t want to get to the finish line and be completely exhausted. You want to be able to enjoy life all the time, not just on your holiday.”
By Angus Holland