Just yesterday, Harvard Business Review published an article sharing some scientifically-proven methods for beating work-related stress and burn-out. In the article, the authors offer the fact that recovery from work-related stress often is itself a paradox. That is, when we’re most in need of recovery (whether that’s over a vacation period or over work stress leave), we’re the least likely to be able to do so.
So, what’s the best practice for maintaining healthy work practices that prevent stress and burn-out? The truth is, there is no one solution that’s one-size-fits-all. What should be consistent throughout all workplaces, however, is that it’s not just an employee concern. A worker’s health, just like their work-life balance (which can contribute to their mental wellness, too!), is both an employer’s and employee’s responsibility. And though the HBR article is a great one, it neglects to address how employers can be a major factor in the health and wellness of a company’s employees. So, let’s talk about work-related stress and what some options for employees and employers for making healthy and productive workspaces.
How to Fight Work-Related Stress
Work-related stress can be easy to overlook and even consider “normal” and “just part of the job” because of how widely accepted it has become. Of course, certain industries may inherently be more stressful based on the stakes at risk. But in many instances, healthy work-place and after-work habits can significantly reduce stress. Finding these practices that work for you and/or your employees, however, may be a process that is not strictly linear, and may require some trial and error.
Know How to Identify Burn-Out
Burn-out is tricky to identify in others and even in yourself. This article by Apollo Technical has a list of a few symptoms you might feel if you’re burnt-out, but of course, stress and burn-out manifests differently in different people.
Employers: be on the look out for tell-tale signs of burn-out. If an employee is working longer hours, or is working on days off, for example, they may be burnt-out. Ironically, if they feel unproductive during their working hours, they may feel obligated to work until they complete their work. But this can lead to further burn-out and is detrimental to both productivity and employee wellness. Another tell-tale sign may be a decrease in engagement, even in non-work related activities after-hours. This is particularly crucial to catch early on. After all, you may not realize an employee is burnt-out until they’re handing in their letter of resignation.
The best practice to prevent burn-out, then, is to have regular check-ins and offer unique solutions that approach your employees’ concerns individually. Ask your employees what is placing a particular amount of stress on them these days. Then, work on finding ways you can better support their practices.
Employees: have regular check-ins with yourself. If you’re relating to the aforementioned examples of burn-out, it might be time to address it with your employer. Because if you’re feeling more stressed than you used to, you may need to address your workplace/work habits together. Is there anything in particular that is making your work more stressful than a year or two ago? Is there a reasonable solution you can ask your employee for that might allow you to work more effectively?
Prevent Work Stress with Self-Care
Despite the negative stigma around it that makes it seem frivolous or selfish, self-care is actually a form of preservation. And like on airplanes during emergency situations, you can only help others after you help yourself. So, if you’re not actively engaging in self-care, there will only be so much you will be able to offer others. And self-care isn’t just one thing, like getting a massage or retail therapy. It can be as simple as cooking or doing everyday tasks mindfully and being mentally present.
As well, as the authors of the HBR article mention, using your downtime to unwind with video games can be a great form of self-care or psychological detachment from work, and thus, preservation tactic. Additionally, we recommend trying out different book genres and new hobbies that require any level of movement. Again, this may require trial and error. Take some time with an activity and see if it further depletes or replenishes your energy remaining after work.
Model Healthy Care Practices
In many cases, certain industries will be more inherently stressful than others. This may be because stress-inducing tendencies continue to be perpetuated, and no healthy practices are being modelled. So, whether you’re an employee or employer, you can take the first step and demonstrate how you take care of yourself in and outside of work. This may be taking micro-breaks—if possible—to stretch, get water, and engage in deep breathing. It may even look like taking time off when it’s necessary to demonstrate that you prioritize your health and wellness (and thus, productivity and work efforts).
With this said, if you don’t feel comfortable explaining to your employer why you need to go on stress or medical leave, you don’t need to. You are in no way obligated to explain your reasoning. In some cases, an employer may ask for a doctor’s note, which can be fairly opaque about your stress or anxiety that requires such a break). But the reality is, employers have no legal right to terminate you over a stress or sick leave. And ultimately, whether you share your reasoning or not, you taking a break and returning to work after recovering even marginally will demonstrate that you prioritize your wellness, and that others should do the same.
Taking Work Stress Leave in Ontario
According to Minken Employment Lawyers, the Ontario Employment Standards Act (ESA) allows employees to take three unpaid sick leave days within a calendar year (during which at least two full weeks of work has been completed). These unpaid sick days are equally for taking care of one’s self physically, mentally, and otherwise. At the same time, as the authors of this article note, if an employee needs more than three days, they are still protected. In fact, the Ontario Human Rights Code requires employers to accommodate employee needs, especially those with disabilities (mental and physical alike). So, if you’re feeling overworked or burnt-out and need a work stress leave to recover, you are obligated and should even be encouraged to do so. After all, no one benefits from burn-out.
If you’re outside Ontario, research your rights as an employee to take a work stress leave. You shouldn’t have to suffer through your stress, nor should you feel like leaving your job is the only solution.