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.

‘Survivor syndrome’

“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.”

Companies are responding by establishing “wellbeing ambassadors” and employee assistance programmes for those suffering from stress. Lyons notes that his main business during the boom was advising companies about “performance enhancement. Now it’s about resilience training” – a more upbeat term, he admits, for stress management.

Work-life balance

Some of the problems he deals with are unrelated to the recession, he says, one of them being the notion of work-life balance. “There is no ‘two different people’. You are the same person. In work, you have to bring a sense of yourself to the work. The stress comes from a feeling that you are acting because if you start acting, you start to lose your identity. Then, one day you look at your name tag and say, ‘how in the name of God did I end up here?’”

Another challenge is technology. “There is definite evidence to show it’s adding to stress,” says Freeney, but intriguingly it has “more of a negative impact” on stress in men than women.

Freeney puts this down to women’s greater comfort with the “social dimension” of communications. “They like to be connected to others . . . something they do very naturally.”

Her colleague at DCU Dr Melrona Kirrane also warns of the dark side of technology, citing people who “protect themselves by email. People will cover their tracks by copying everyone in. They will say, ‘I sent you an email about it’ as though that is the word of God nearly”.

Such workers “must feel quite vulnerable”, she argues, saying it was indicative of a workplace with very little trust.

Kirrane also cites “the bizarre situation” of sending emails to someone sitting at a nearby desk. “There is nearly a protectionist vibe” to such practices,

The sundering of organisations through outsourcing and downsizing also affects trust and worker sense of identity.

“Within the sphere of work, there has been something of a corrosion of the collective sense,” says Prof Bill Roche of UCD School of Business.

‘Flexibility at work’

Traditional occupational distinctions – which once created a sense of camaraderie but were also a “focal point for unions” – are disappearing. In manufacturing, “you were once defined as a fitter, or a maintenance mechanic or some other specialty. All that’s gone, partly because of greater flexibility at work.”

People are increasingly being asked to fall back on their own resources and Kirrane believes they need guidance to deal with this, including training in emotional intelligence.

“To question what is meaningful is something we don’t think early enough about.”

She never fails to be uplifted by people returning to education to reskill or reinvent themselves. “It’s a brave person to do that and render their employment meaningful.”