While occasional deadline pressures and heavy workloads are part and parcel of professional life, the feeling of relentless and debilitating work stress is not. This feeling is known as burnout and has received a significant bit of air time over the last few years - a recent report from Indeed found that 52% of all workers surveyed are feeling crippling levels of fatigue and stress (Threlkeld, 2021). COVID-19 hasn't done anything to improve matters, as not only does the pandemic create its own source of stress, but the shift to remote work at many organisations has made work members feel isolated and disconnected from their team, increased the amount of time individuals are spending working and made it harder for leaders to notice the signs of burnout among their ranks.
While we hope everyone has come back from their holidays feeling rejuvenated and refreshed, we know how quickly work can start to pile up and feelings of anxiety can begin to creep back in - especially as the COVID virus continues to impact plans and our ability to 'switch off'. Consequently, we've provided some tips on how to manage work stress, recognise the signs of burnout and look after our mental health at work in 2022.
Burnout was initially considered a problem related to life management but in 2019, the World Health Organisation re-labelled the syndrome as an international ‘occupational phenomenon’ and the result of chronic workplace stress that had not been successfully managed  (World Health Organisation, 2019).
While burnout is still a relatively new psychological concept (two Australian-first studies looking into the phenomenon have only been released this year) the following symptoms indicate an individual may be suffering from burnout:
· Irritability and anger
· Sleep Deprivation
· Lack of motivation or passion
· Lack of concentration, memory loss or brain fog
· Withdrawal from others
· Physical symptoms such as aches, headaches, and nausea
Research indicates that the causes of burnout are primarily job-related stressors (although there are cases of individuals experiencing burnout outside of work). While stressors differ across occupations, they originate from the same key issues; the demanding and relentless nature of the job paired with limited resources and support (Hsieh, 2012).
Delving more deeply, studies have also identified a higher number of burnout cases within professions that deal with multiple human interactions. Employees within ‘human services professions’ often have to suppress their own emotions in order to perform their job (e.g. always being polite to stakeholders) and have the added pressure of knowing their decision-making will have a direct impact on others (Wilkinson, 2018). This emotional exhaustion is a key dimension of job induced burnout.
Burnout became a significant phenomenon during the pandemic, as the impacts of COVID-19 took their toll on the economy, industries and many individuals’ working lives. With so many forced to work from home, the lines between professional and personal life blurred and many reported working extended hours. Furthermore, for the built environment industry - which became a pivotal cog in Australia’s post-covid recovery plan - workers have experienced a turbulent 12 months. Those within the industry have had to contend with an increased number of projects, deadlines being fast-tracked, supply chain hold-ups and for NSW and VIC, a temporary shutdown of all construction sites. Indeed, in a recent global study that examined the workloads and psychological of professionals across a variety of industries, the construction industry was included in the top 5 most hazardous industries for burnout (PBC Today, 2021).
Despite stress and burnout being intrinsically linked, experts state that it’s important to be able to differentiate between the two. While stress causes an instant physical reaction, burnout has more of an emotional impact (Handler, 2015). According to psychiatrist Professor Gordon Parker AO, founder of the Black Dog Institute, stress can be explained as fight or flight mode- when an individual experiences adrenaline that motivates them to act. Alternately, burnout is when the motivation has gone. Sufferers have described it as a feeling of continuous fatigue and disconnection from activities that would otherwise bring them meaning or purpose (Arnall, 2019).
Another key factor between burnout and stress is time. In their recent study, The University of New South Wales School of Psychiatry found a direct correlation between the length of recovery after ‘stress-induced activity’ and burnout; essentially the more of a recovery period respondents felt they had in between bouts of stress (like a big project or event), the less likely they experienced burnout symptoms in the long run (Parker & Tavella, 2021). These findings are particularly significant when considering the constant state of flux of COVID-19, which makes it that much harder to find time to ‘recover’ and switch off. Even during the most recent Christmas/New Years break where many Australians traditionally take extended time off, covid-case numbers skyrocketed, derailing many people’s holiday plans and leaving a number of us feeling particularly un-refreshed as we commence the new working year.
The inconvenient reality is, that there’s no quick fix for burnout and unfortunately COVID-19 isn’t going to miraculously disappear overnight. The pandemic and the flow-on effect it’s having on our industries and our lives are out of our control. However, with our New Year’s intentions still top of mind and 2022 representing a ‘fresh start’ or ‘blank page’, it might be the perfect opportunity to reconsider our outlooks and strategies (individually and as organisations) to help weather the covid storm and handle workplace stress and anxiety for the year ahead. We look at the optimal strategies that can help minimise the chances of burnout and ultimately help you to take better care of your mental health:
If you’re having trouble sleeping, set aside some time before bedtime to do things to help you relax. Try meditating, relaxation breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation.
If you’re coming off the back of a long stretch of shifts, remember it may take several days of extended sleep (for example, 10 hours) before you begin to feel recovered. Give yourself time to recover.
Try and exercise regularly and eat a daily serving of fruit and vegetables
Start investing in ‘microbreaks’ during your day; tiny, impromptu respites spaced throughout the workday of five to ten minutes. Getting up, looking out a window or getting some fresh air can help your mind to reset and calm your sympathetic nervous system (stress response).
Use a buddy system while you’re at work. Check-in with each other to ensure everyone is coping with work hours and demands.
Watch yourself and your co-workers for signs of fatigue — (yawning, having difficulty keeping your eyes open, and difficulty concentrating. Furthermore, say something/reach out to your co-workers if you notice signs of fatigue and report any fatigue-related events or close-calls to a manager to help prevent injuries and errors.
Find out if your employer has a formal program to help you manage fatigue or stress while on a particular project. You may also wish to seek out professional help individually (outside of work) if you’re struggling with managing your stress levels and need additional guidance on creating a self-care plan to prevent burnout.
Try and keep in regular contact with family and friends even if self-isolating
Try and change your mindset. Unfortunately, while there are proactive steps we can work on to manage stress, there will always be factors outside of our control – especially within the built environment industry – that can drive us into states of burnout. Your outlook on things is the one thing you can adjust. Reframing your source of stress through thinking things like can I find something positive in the negativity? What steps can I take to overcome or manage the situation? can actually help to reduce your feelings of stress and more importantly, help to find a source of motivation to move forward.
Organisations should provide mental health education to all employees and train and support managers to become mental health literate and recognise the signs for employees ‘at risk’ of burnout.
For organisations that haven’t already, mental health and wellness policies and procedures should be established and ideally, should be co-designed with employees, so that they feel their needs are being met. Particularly for employees with a mental illness, knowing their workplace is set up to support them will be integral for their ongoing wellbeing with the organisation.
Establish clear coordination and communication between management and workers about the mental health resources your organisation offers to employees, like a Fatigue Risk Management Plan, onsite counselling services, whether the organisation has an Employee Assistance Program and available stress management resources. Share, encourage and ensure that employees understand what they need to do to access these processes.
Regularly perform safety reviews. A significant portion of construction accidents are caused by human error and more often than not, these errors occur when individuals feel overwhelmed – due to fatigue, increased stress, being under-resourced etc. This is why in the current environment, organisations should conduct regular safety reviews and ensure safety is a regular topic in meetings and catch-ups so that crews feel comfortable addressing any concerns. Doing so will help in reducing the number of accidents and injuries on site.
For those in leadership positions, it’s important to give your team recognition for a job well done – especially during difficult circumstances. Implementing regular award systems, providing rewards (complimentary coffees, additional leave etc) or even just publicly acknowledging strong performances will help to boost morale, make employees feel valued and motivate them to continue working hard – even during difficult periods.
Establish a system in which employees can regularly provide feedback in order to understand what processes are helping employees perform their job and what processes could be improved – whether that’s new equipment, ways to improve safety, allowing for more workplace flexibility etc. Establishing an open two-way dialogue with your team will positively impact your employee’s work experience, make them feel supported and help address problems (stress-related or otherwise) as soon as they arise.
It’s important to recognise that we are living in stressful and unusual circumstances for everyone. While it can seem counterproductive in the moment, taking stock of one’s own mental health can be the most productive thing you can do - not only for yourself but your wider team. With a greater awareness of the signs of burnout and establishing strategies to help manage workplace stress and anxiety, you put yourself in the best position to have a productive year ahead.
 Threlkeld, K. (2021). Employee Burnout Report: COVID-19’s Impact and 3 Strategies To Curb It. Indeed for Employers. Retrieved from: https://www.indeed.com/lead/preventing-employee-burnout-report
 World Health Organisation. (2019). Burn-out “Occupational Phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organisation. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
 Hsieh, C. (2012). Burnout Among Public Service Workers. Review of Public Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270689791
 Wilkinson, S. (2019). Why Was Everyone Talking About Emotional Labour In 2018? BBC Three. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5ea9f140-f722-4214-bb57-8b84f9418a7e
 PBC Today. (2021). Is The Construction Industry Suffering From A Burnout? PBC Today. Retrieved from: https://www.pbctoday.co.uk/news/health-safety-news/construction-industry-burnout/91537/
 Handler, M. (2015). Beating Workplace Burnout. Careers In Government. Retrieved from: https://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/career-advice/on-the-job/beating-workplace-burnout/
 Arnall, K. (2019). ‘It was a feeling of defeat’: the real signs of workplace burnout. ABC News. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-07/the-real-signs-of-workplace-burnout/10850070
 Parker, G. & Tavella, G. (2021) We’re all exhausted but are you experiencing burnout? Here’s what to look out for. UNSW Sydney Newsroom. Retrieved from: https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/health/extinguished-and-anguished-what-burnout-and-what-can-we-do-about-it