Stress and burnout increasingly common in brave new world of changing workplace
Occupational psychologist Alan Lyons admits it can be “very annoying” to hear people accentuate the positives of the recession but he can’t help himself. “People are now asking, ‘what can I do that gives me a sense of purpose and meaning?’ and that’s a good thing. During the boom years people’s sense of identity went skew ways.”
Having a sense of purpose is the single most important factor behind happiness and success, he says, quickly adding that this is not a new idea but draws on Viktor Frankl’s thinking – the Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
It’s true, says Lyons, that money doesn’t make you happy. Although “there is one caveat to that: if you’re not paid fairly you’re not going to be engaged”.
Nor do long hours necessarily make you unhappy. “If you work 100 hours a week you can be happy if you strongly identify with what you do.”
This message for workers today has a flip side, however. The recession has given people an opportunity to reassess their priorities, but it has also limited their options to find “meaningful” work. Some employees are being forced into new roles, or alien ways of working, and this is contributing to stress, depression and a crisis of identity.
“People are experiencing different types of stress as a result of the downturn,” says Dr Yseult Freeney, a DCU psychology lecturer who specialises in the field. “One of these is survivor syndrome. The people left behind after a downsizing can feel both relieved and guilty, and unlike those who leave . . . survivors are just left to get on with it. And with a higher workload. Organisations don’t tend to look after the survivors; they think the employees left behind are bound to be happy.”
Workers in financial services have been particularly affected. There is now a stigma attached to the work and “there is a lot of aggression to frontline staff in banks”. With business drying up, moreover, “it’s very difficult to see any purpose to what you are doing”.
She notes a lack of data on trends in work-related stress. But studies indicate that it affects more than 25 per cent of employees. A recent report for the Health and Safety Authority put its cost to the economy at €200 million a year.
In a survey last year by EU research agency Eurofound, 46 per cent of Irish people said they were stressed in work or at home, while 12 per cent said they were stressed in both.
A 2010 study of Irish workers by the same agency found 70 per cent of respondents worked to tight deadlines, 36 per cent said their job required hiding their feelings and 14 per cent said they had to perform tasks that conflicted with their values.
One thing being increasingly diagnosed is burnout. But practitioners say they don’t know whether this is due to the recession or greater awareness of work-related ailments.
Freeney defines burnout as a failure to deal with stress. It has three aspects: emotional exhaustion, cynicism and lack of self-confidence. “Research shows it’s contagious. Burnout spreads like a disease; it can be brought home and, in couples, it crosses from one partner to another.”