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Employee stress, anxiety and burnout, and how to avoid it

Employee stress at work, and how to avoid it

Mental health is back in the news again, if indeed it ever really left, with the Prime Minister targeting “sick note Britain” and those who claim to be too unwell to work. A post-pandemic rise of 850,000 in the number of people not working due to long-term sickness is, he has said, economically unsustainable, unaffordable, and unfair on taxpayers.


At the same time, we have to accept that things are undeniably tough right now for a lot of people. We are constantly reminded that the world we live in is more dangerous and volatile than it has been for decades. Inflation may be falling, but most people’s finances are still stretched, and the economy’ future still looks uncertain.


Many employers continue to tighten their belts so as to survive the storms. All too often, this results in extra responsibilities, extra duties, and extra hours at the office (whether literally or metaphorically). One recent report, the 2024 Global Talent Trends report from HR consultancy Mercer, claims that a shocking 82% of employees are at risk of burnout this year. 43% of them cite financial strain as a contributory factor and 37% blame an excessive workload.


According to the HSE 2023 report on work-related stress, depression, and anxiety, 875,000 UK workers suffered from one or more from that unholy trinity in 2022/23 and 17.1 million working days were lost as a result.


It is, therefore, incredibly important for us all to look out for our employees and colleagues as well as our family members, friends and loved ones. And if we have any influence over such things, we should do what we can to minimise stress on those who work with or for us.

Work related stress in the UK

The effects of burnout

On top of those 17.1 million lost days, we know that employees who make it to work but are close to burnout, or are dealing with unusually high levels of stress, will not be performing at their best. They are also more likely to make mistakes.

We also know that, if left untreated, stress will quickly lead to disengagement. Burnt-out employees will eventually see leaving the company as their only option for survival. For this reason, employers that aren’t proactive in their support of their people’s wellbeing suffer from lower performance and productivity and higher staff turnover than those that do.


According to the HSE report, the rate of self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety was increasing in the years leading up to the pandemic. And the current rate is higher still. In fact, in '22/23, 49% of all work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost to work-related ill health were due to stress, depression or anxiety.


The causes and the solutions

Workload is the most significant and obvious contributing factor to work-related stress, but other factors include:

  • Unfair treatment at work

  • Lack of role clarity

  • Lack of communication and support from manager

  • Unreasonable time pressure

  • Violence, threats, or bullying

  • Changes at work

  • Lack of control


Much of this can be mitigated with effective communication, proper training, and meaningful support.


Communicate and listen

Our advice is to revisit your comms strategy or treat it to a full health check to ensure that all of your people are empowered and motivated by receiving the information, advice and guidance they need to do their job effectively. Are you facilitating collaboration, teamwork, and knowledge sharing?


And are you listening to the feedback, ideas, fears, and concerns of your people? Are you nurturing a culture of psychological safety? There are so many ways to do this, regardless of your setup. In-person or remote meetings and townhalls can be enhanced by an interactive polling and Q&A platform. Meaningful surveys, online pulse surveys, and walk-and-talks (planned to include those who may struggle to access the digital options) are also effective solutions. Use a combination of all of the above for maximum effect.

And don’t be afraid to grab the bull by the horns and run a pulse survey specifically about what is troubling your people. What better way to know and understand what is stressing our people out than to ask them?


Always ensure that employees have a clear understanding of their roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Unclear roles can lead to confusion, stress, and a sense of being overwhelmed.

The importance of good communication at work

Manage time more effectively and fairly

We can help our people avoid burnout by fostering a few “protective practices”. Consider implementing no meeting zones so that colleagues can have a protected lunch hour. Can you even go as far as initiating a full meeting-free day per week to allow people to “get on with the day job” uninterrupted? Can your meetings be assessed and tagged as ‘essential’, ‘optional’ or ‘beneficial’ so invitees can decide whether to attend and how to prioritise everything that is competing for their time?


Encourage employees to prioritise their personal time and set boundaries between work and home life. Flexible scheduling, remote work options, and clear expectations regarding off-hours communication can help achieve this balance. We should also encourage employees to take regular breaks and utilise their vacation time, and to disconnect completely during vacations to recharge fully.


Manage and support your managers

Work with leaders to ensure they are not punishing their direct reports with relentless and unreasonable deadlines or unrealistic targets. Sometimes, our employees end up paying the price for their leaders’ disorganisation, lack of forward planning or over-ambition. Training or support for leaders guilty of this can benefit everyone in their reporting group!


This isn’t about playing a blame game or starting an unnecessary, unpleasant, and unhelpful witch-hunt. But there is no escaping leaders’ responsibility and accountability for most of our list of causes above. And if your town halls, walk-and-talks or stress surveys return any recurring themes, then perhaps some training, support or directives are required for those responsible for those particular business areas.


It could well be that some of your management is struggling with stress and burnout of their own, and this is how it is manifesting. They are, of course, entitled to the same sympathetic ear and support as everyone else.


Managers should be trained to recognise signs of burnout and provide support to their team members. Regular check-ins, one-on-one meetings, and open-door policies can create a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their challenges.

Focus on wellbeing

Finally, try to dedicate appropriate time and comms space to promoting wellbeing and raising awareness of the pitfalls and triggers. Can you share survival tips and relaxation techniques? Is introducing mental first-aiders or peer-protectors a viable option? Are you facilitating and promoting downtime or social events? Do you normalise discussions around mental health and reduce the stigma associated with seeking help?


Peer-to-peer recognition is also an inexpensive but highly effective way to boost morale and mental wellbeing.


Wherever possible, we should aim to promote physical wellness initiatives such as exercise programs, ergonomic workstations, and access to healthy snacks. Physical well-being is closely linked to mental well-being and resilience against burnout.


You could get some more ideas on how to improve employee wellbeing here.


Read more: Mental Resilience

We can’t change what’s going on in the world or remove all traces of stress from the lives of people we work with or manage, but we can reduce the stresses we put upon them. We can also offer, and encourage a wider culture of, empathetic support.


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