Stress and burnout in the workplace

A woman in a grey shirt sits at a computer desk with eyes closed, leaning her face on her folded hands.

Stress and burnout in the workplace

A woman in a grey shirt sits at a computer desk with eyes closed, leaning her face on her folded hands.

Managing stress and staying mentally healthy at work are critical to overall health and wellbeing. Here are some practical tips for employers and managers to limit stress and better protect everyone’s mental health at work.

If workplace stress is not appropriately managed, it can lead to more serious mental and physical health issues, such as burnout.

Burnout refers to a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion driven by chronic workplace stress.

It can affect job satisfaction, productivity and the overall operational effectiveness of a business.

Employers should consider what systems they can put in place to control risks and stressors and be aware of warning signs that indicate that employees may be struggling to cope.

Beyond the moral obligation to look after staff, there is also a legal obligation for employers under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (and in Victoria the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004) to provide a safe and healthy workplace for all workers.

Warning signs of stress and burnout

Stress can affect people differently.

Common signs of stress include:

  • headaches
  • nausea
  • chest pains and high blood pressure
  • low energy
  • appearing dishevelled
  • trouble sleeping
  • increased absenteeism
  • poor concentration and being easily distracted
  • finding it harder to make decisions.

Tips for managers and employers

Be reasonable in your expectations

While every employee is expected to perform to a particular standard—one that positively contributes to the overall functionality of your business—unreasonable or unrealistic expectations can be one of the key triggers of workplace stress.

Demanding excessive overtime, placing an unrealistic deadline on a particular task or repeatedly expecting an employee to perform at a level ‘beyond their pay grade’ can contribute significantly to workplace stress.

Be clear, consistent and unambiguous

Two of the major contributors to stress in the workplace are task ambiguity and information overload.

Task ambiguity occurs when a worker is not clear about the job at hand, whether due to confusing instructions, lack of direction or lack of training in a particular area of work.

On the other hand, information overload can happen when employees are fed too much information or expected to adhere to an entirely new and somewhat overwhelming set of procedures or guidelines relating to how they do their job.

Managers need to be aware of the dangers of both and ensure that they are clear, consistent and unambiguous when managing their workers.

Involve your workers and keep communication open

Where possible, seek input from your workers on potential changes or major decisions that could affect the workplace.

This will help them to feel valued and invested in the business, allowing them to stay on top of their work.

Similarly, ensure that communication channels are open and transparent so that employees do not feel kept in the dark.

Create a supportive working environment

Some environments can isolate workers from one another and make it difficult for them to receive the encouragement and support of their colleagues.

Try to foster a supportive environment where your staff can share problems and resources; having the support of colleagues can help to alleviate the negative impact of stress on staff members’ lives.

Encourage work-life balance

It is important to create a clear distinction between the workplace and home life.

Take care to ensure that your employees aren’t required to respond to work-related issues while away from work.

Regularly encouraging employees to make use of annual leave to pursue non-work interests (such as holidays or hobbies) can also make sure that they return to work refreshed and ready to go.

Be flexible

Many modern workers value non-monetary benefits as much as financial rewards.

Providing flexibility (where reasonable) will go a long way towards ensuring that your workforce is engaged while also reducing the likelihood of stress.

This might include varying start or finish times to suit family or caring responsibilities or allowing employees to work longer shifts across fewer days to provide more ‘days off’ from the workplace.

Do not discriminate

Treating an employee adversely because they are suffering from a mental health condition is prohibited under the Fair Work Act 2009.

This is particularly pertinent if an employee takes a period of absence, or a series of absences, from the workplace to manage their condition.

Be supportive and work together with your employee (and, if applicable, their treating medical professional) to ensure that they return to a safe working environment.

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Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is general comment and is not intended as advice on any particular matter, nor should it be relied on as a substitute for legal or professional advice. Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd expressly disclaim all and any liability to any persons whatsoever in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by any such person in reliance whether in whole or in part upon any of the contents of this publication. ©Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd. 2022.

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