Occupational stress is on the rise, and experts warn it must not be normalised
BY CAROLINE MWENDWA
One day I found myself on a bus to a hospital carrying forms that require an author to append signatures so that payments can be processed, for books she had written for the publications house I was working for. On my way I felt guilty, sort of embarrassed of my insensitivity, can’t this wait? Can’t anyone do this on her behalf? But anyway, I was on duty and I absolved myself of the guilt by convincing my conscience that she would benefit from the odd visit in the end.
Until I got to her hospital bed, I hadn’t realised the depth of this author’s story. She lay there, just from the theatre with a bandage on her lower part of the skull. From our strained conversation, I picked that she had collapsed at her apartment, from persistent headaches, that doctors later diagnosed to be chronic occupational stress. The highly talented teacher-turned-author, had undergone a brain rapture, from over working. It immediately hit me that the pressure exerted by editors to authors to meet deadlines, while maintaining a certain quality of work, for a full-time teacher must have taken a toll on her.
What if she listened to her body cues of headaches and slowed down a bit? But she had already taken up the tasks and pulling out in the middle of a project is not prudent. I couldn’t stop interrogating myself about choices I make pertaining work and pushing the body further than it can handle.
World Health Organisation, recently qualified burn out as a diagnosable syndrome. It is defined in the International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
In US alone statistics show that Job burnout accounts for an estimated USD125 billion to USD190 billion in health-care spending each year. Such costs have led to the World Health Organisation predicting a global pandemic within a decade. Several studies have been carried out in Kenya, to measure the prevalence of burn out among various professionals. Among the Kenyatta National Hospital medical workers for example, a study carried out by the University of Nairobi found that the burn out incidence among medics in Kenya is higher (95.4 per cent) than those found in other parts of the world. It further confirmed that the young and inexperienced medical workers were more vulnerable to burnout syndrome than the old, experienced and specialised medical workers.
For accountants, the study showed that the prevalence rate for burnout was 100 per cent; with 27.4 per cent of respondents having low burnout and 72.6 per cent having high burnout. Consequently 18.9 per cent of the respondents had varying levels of psychological distress at the workplace.
Causes of burnout
While most organisations view victims of burnout as the problem, experts have argued that burnout is more an organisational rather than an individual problem. Experts in organisational design and effectiveness, Eric Garton and Michael C. Mankins in their book Time, Talent and Energy, identify three major causes of burn out at the work place: excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work.
In excessive collaboration, the tendency to engage protractive procedures of decision making, leads to too much waste of time as events and plans are scheduled, and rescheduled with so much time being spent up in communication processes including unnecessary meetings and emails. These two experts argue that switching to a new task while still in the middle of another increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 25 per cent. A Microsoft study found that it takes people an average of 15 minutes to return to an important project after an e-mail interruption. The fact that this approach also leads to individuals multitasking is a point of low productivity.
Other factors that cause burnout include: unfair treatment at work, unreasonable deadlines, unmanageable workload and lack of support from managers as well as the stress that comes with 24/7 access to work, through emails and texts, and expectations to respond at off-hours.
Micromanagement is another cause of stress at the workplace. These two experts advise that it is liberating to give employees autonomy to a certain degree to allow them to flex their creativity.
What employees can do
A CNBC report advises employees to do the following to reverse burn out, or evade it all together:
Master your strengths: doing a job day in day out, that requires skill sets that you are most poor in will drain your morale and energy and cost your peace of mind at the least provocation. Choosing jobs that match up your abilities keeps you energised.
According to a 2015 study in the journal Personnel, establishing friendships at the work place also eases the burden of cracking huge responsibilities that may require know-how that you may not have as you can easily consult without the fear of being judged.
Additionally, you should endeavour to communicate whenever you feel frustrated especially by identifying good managers, with whom the employee can easily collaborate.
Caroline Mwendwa is the Editor Management Magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org