EXECUTIVE HEALTH Executive Burnout – How to recognise it and how beat it

A recent health survey tested 500 white-collar workers from businesses throughout the country. The survey, conducted over two years by Wendy Sweet from The Personal Training Company, provides candid insight into the health of corporate New Zealand. The findings also make for depressing reading.
More than half of this country’s white-collar workers regularly suffer from stress-related mood disturbances such as headaches and migraines, insomnia, neck and lower back tension. More than third of them, if the survey is any guide, suffer from chronic fatigue, and nearly 40 percent experience stress-related skin disorders.
Cardiovascular health fares almost as poorly with 48 percent of workers having below average aerobic fitness, 36 percent have high total cholesterol, and 45 percent have excessively low levels of protective HDL cholesterol.
The Southern Cross Healthworks programme has also identified stress as major health risk issue. From sample of 2000 employees, both managerial and non-managerial, who completed the Healthworks programme, 16 percent were considered “potentially at risk” as result of stress. Six percent were classified as “already at risk”. similar Southern Cross study involving 300 human resource executives found stress was even more of an issue, with 23 percent of them potentially at risk, and nine percent already at risk.
The Mental Health Foundation says that mental health issues are major cause of worker absenteeism in New Zealand.
Despite employers’ new legislative responsibilities to better manage the environment and processes that contribute to the mental and physical health of their employees, mental health and stress-related workplace problems are still viewed negatively. There is still deep-seated worker resistance to admitting stress-related problems, according to ‘corporate wellness’ specialists. Admitting that you are not coping with work responsibility implies weakness and, in either the employee’s mind or in reality, has the potential to threaten promotion prospects.
Occasionally “going for the burn” to meet looming deadline, is an expected part of corporate life. But statistics show that stress, often resulting from excessive work demands, is becoming chronic debilitating problem for an increasing number of white-collar workers.
Struggling to survive in an unreasonably stressful work environment leads, increasingly, to burnout. The phenomenon of personal “crash and burn” is prime factor in employee turnover, absenteeism, low morale and productivity decline in the workplace.
Managers trying to pick who will stay fresh and balanced in the face of work pressures, and who will bow to burnout, are confronted with complex analysis. While some executives seemingly seek out stress by thriving on pressure, work responsibility and long hours, others quickly reach point of diminishing returns as the workload climbs and pressure mounts. Stress per se, while often contributing to burnout, does not always predict who will burnout. Other contributing factors include genetic predisposition, other health conditions, environment, experience, business type, management approach, lifestyle choices and personal stresses.
Dr Penny Warring, from the corporate wellness organisation Well for Life, works with blue- and white-collar workers from many industries. “Workplace stress comes in many forms,” she says when asked what causes burnout. “Many corporate businesses have now changed to performance-based management style, with constant productivity targets to meet. This, combined with the downsizing of corporations and the resulting increased workload for individual employees, contributes significantly to stress and resulting burnout. Many executives are stressed by the sheer uncertainty of their place in rapidly changing workplace. As organisations undergo change, the question ‘will I have job tomorrow?’ becomes chronic source of stress and anxiety.”
Recovering from burnout can be long, slow and difficult process. Burnout can take several years to manifest itself. By adopting sound management strategies there is plenty of opportunity to prevent the problem occurring. In an environment where admitting stress problems is still difficult, it becomes the responsibility of perceptive managers to detect the warning signs of impending burnout in their employees.
According to Warring, one of the most common signs of impending burnout is noticeable mood changes such as irritability and short temperedness. The individual’s immediate family, rather than the individuals themselves, are generally the first to notice these changes. The executive is already on the downward spiral by the time their mood affects the workplace. previously valuable employee will suddenly be involved in conflict with co-workers, often overreacting with emotional outbursts or increased hostility.
Chronic fatigue accompanies the mood changes. restful weekend no longer provides adequate recovery from the working week. Monday morning exhaustion becomes the norm. Physical exhaustion is accompanied by emotional fatigue. Negative emotions such as despondency, frustration and dissatisfaction dominate. Previously enthusiastic workers change into bored, disillusioned and cynical shadows of their former self. Poor concentration delivers noticeable decline in productivity.
Physical ailments appear as emotional energy levels plummet. Sleep problems emerge early in the burnout spiral, with poor quality sleep and frequent waking, often between the hours of 2am and 4am. Common physical complaints include constant fatigue, lack of interest in hobbies or other activities, indigestion, bowel growls, itchy skin, headaches, back pain, frequent infections, chest pains or palpitations, and nervous tics. Depression, negativity and the exhaustion of burnout prompts some sufferers to turn to substance abuse. An increased intake of caffeine or an increase in smoking and alcohol consumption are common.

An ounce of prevention
The first crucial step to preventing workplace burnout is realising that it can happen unless there is pro-active workplace prevention. Management needs to acknowledge the reality in training courses, discussions and orientation programmes. Managers must be educated to recognise signs of stress in both themselves and their co-workers. Increased awareness of early warning signs can be detected even if employees avoid admitting the problem.
Organisational culture has direct impact on the incidence of burnout. Managers cast shadow of influence throughout the organisation, role modelling acceptable behaviour and work practice. Setting healthy example for other employees is vital. Modelling positive behaviour such as taking regular breaks, not working through the lunch hour, healthy work/life balance, exercising regularly, and working sane number of hours in week all help to create an anti-burnout culture.
Warring believes managers who practise good communication can help prevent employee burnout. Uncertainty and misinformation as result of poor management communication that generates uncertainty or misinformation can generate feelings of powerlessness. An understanding and empathetic attitude, and culture that affirms and recognises individual employee achievements, are equally important.
“To prevent burnout, managers must ensure their employees have adequate training to perform their jobs, and ready access to all the tools they need,” says Sweet. Regular workshops and retraining to upgrade skills is vital to offset the stress of “not knowing” how to do job. Employees lacking knowledge and skills are prime candidates for helplessness, frustration and burnout.
John Pfifferling, from the American Centre for Professional Well Being, stresses the importance of healthy relationships outside of the workplace. “Maintaining powerful family and support mechanism can be one of your best anti-burnout strategies. If you say yes too many times to too many people, there

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