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Stress and Burnout

It is March, and most of us have had our fill of snow, cold and gray skies.  There is no denying that the dark, cold and gray can impact our mood, and many of my colleagues have been able to escape to tropical climates, in hopes of chasing away the winter blues. But what if feeling down, or stressed, is more than just a consequence of the long winter? To what extent does stress and its more serious companion, burnout, impact our lives and our workplaces?

According to one report by WELCOA, 51% of full-time employees experience enough life and work stress that they’re vulnerable to stress disorders. Another 37% are actually impaired by stress, which means 88% of the workforce in America is living in stress that is not managed well and that is impacting their health and endangering their lives.  

In fact, stress-related impairments can take a real physical toll, and can sometimes result in physical ailments such as high blood pressure, digestive disorders, headaches, muscle aches or ulcers. Burnout, on the other hand, takes our bodies stress response to the next level.  Burnout is described by Dr. Jeff Jernigan as:

"[A] moral injury [individuals] experience ………. Something fundamental in their view of self and in their worldview and their values has been violated. So, you’re not only having to deal with someone’s emotional and physical recovery from the impacts of stress, you’re having to help them rebuild how they view themselves and their worldview as well. It’s much more devastating and much more permanent in its lasting effects than just the physical symptoms of having had to deal with stress over a period of time".

How do the effects of stress and burnout manifest themselves at work? While sometimes hard to measure, employees experiencing stress and burnout are likely to have higher levels of absenteeism, more work errors, lower performance and may engage in some unhealthy coping behaviors such as substance abuse. All of these behaviors are damaging to both the individual as well as the organization. More tangibly perhaps to the organization is the correlation between stress and health care costs.  In my experience working with employers on their health benefit plans, pharmaceutical expenditures for medications related to stress, anxiety and depression are consistently in the top three for overall medication expenditures.

How can we help our workforce cope and recover? By building resilience, which, of course, is easier said than done.  A good place to start is by truly integrating the following into your lifestyle:

1. Nutrition  To be in a positive mindset, our brain needs food. We all know what foods are good for us and if in doubt, there is a wealth of free resources available to help us along.  A great place to start is choosemyplate.gov

2. Exercise  According to Dr. Jernigan, being physically active for 20 minutes a day will improve learning, cognition, memory, self-control and mental flexibility.

3. Sleep  We need it; 7-9 hours per night and if you’re anything like me, you’re not getting enough. Additionally, according to