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October 20, 2022

Stress leading to burnout isn’t simply a personal problem—it’s a critical organizational issue.

Effectively managing stress starts with management.

In early 2022, Marsh McLennan Agency (MMA) conducted a survey of top management, line managers, directors and others to assess business decision makers’ current perceptions and attitudes when it comes to workplace stress and its impact on their lives.

The key takeaway? Stress is affecting management in much the same ways it impacts employees.

This may not be a profound revelation but when you connect stress to job burnout—it becomes a potentially significant organizational problem.

What is burnout?

The term was first coined in 1599 by William Shakespeare in “The Passionate Pilgrim.” It’s been used to describe a range of negative reactions, including feeling detached from everything associated with work, decreased productivity, an increase in errors, inability to make simple decisions, and more.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says stress leads directly to burnout.

The WHO studied how stress affects employees and discovered that it inevitably leads to burnout. A study by the American Psychological Association found that:

  • 79% of employees experienced work-related stress,
  • 60% said that work-related stress generated a lack of interest, motivation, and energy,
  • and 44% suffered from physical fatigue. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, “burnout” isn’t necessarily a medical diagnosis, but there is no doubt that job-related stress, along with other stressors in life, can lead to burnout. More importantly, burnout is a major problem for organizational management.

Stress affects management as much as those they manage.

According to the Marsh McLennan Agency 2022 Workplace Stress Study, 70% of managers—including upper management, line management, directors, and others—feel that their job demands increased over the past year. Additionally, 55% of those respondents said those demands are continuing to grow.

Senior managers tend to work longer hours but find the time they put in to be more worthwhile and are more satisfied overall than those in other roles. That makes sense, as senior managers tend to be more satisfied with their compensation, can see room for growth, and usually receive more overt recognition for achievements. 

That said, the long hours, heavier workload, and workplace conflicts take a toll, as does the worry over finding and retaining skilled talent who can grow with the company.

Line managers and directors are more prone to stress over job security and conflicts with co-workers and bosses as well as the extra time and workload demands put on them by the job.

Stress has an obvious impact on the general workforce.

The MMA Stress Study has several key findings regarding stress.

  • 68% of employees lost sleep because of stress.
  • 49% felt it had a negative impact on their personal and family life.
  • 40% said they have health issues as a result of stress.
  • Only 10% of employees plan to make a professional change in the next year, essentially to avoid the stress in their current job.

A recent Deloitte study reported that 77% of employees surveyed have experienced burnout at their current job. Moreover, 83% said burnout can negatively impact personal relationships and even 64% of those who claim to be passionate about their jobs say they are frequently stressed at work.

The survey also found that nearly 70% feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout, and 25% of these surveyed did not use all of their vacation time on a yearly basis.

Maintaining a work/life balance isn’t a cliché, it’s a necessity.

More than half of the MMA study respondents (68%) felt their work/life balance could definitely be improved. Nearly all of them felt preoccupied with work even when they were away from it. They also thought the volume of work could be overwhelming.

Add to that an inability—or an unwillingness—to take time off, and the resulting lack of time for their personal interests means these decision makers have become overtly dissatisfied.

Both management and employees feel that work/life balance is poorly weighted, but the major stressors for employees are often more specific to the job.

Which factors contribute to stress? 

For management, the key stressors tend to be:

  • Increasing job demands
  • Maintaining a healthy work/life balance
  • Preoccupation with work, even away from it
  • Inability to take time off
  • Lack of time for personal interests
  • Finding and keeping talent

As mentioned earlier, upper management doesn’t necessarily see job security as a primary source of stress, but constant regulatory changes can be extremely stressful. Line managers, on the other hand, are more concerned about job security.

For employees, key stressors appear to be more complex. Depending on the level of management, many of the following can affect certain managers in much the same way.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identifies two main areas of stress creation for employees: working conditions and worker characteristics. 

Working conditions

  • Size of workload, number of rest breaks, and long working hours
  • Routine tasks that don’t use an employee’s skills 
  • Lack of control 
  • Poor communications
  • Lack of flexibility 
  • Unclear expectations
  • Being overworked and underappreciated
  • Constantly needing to feel connected to work
  • Micromanagement

Worker characteristics

  • Toxic environments
  • Poor interpersonal relationships
  • Bullying
  • Lack of support from co-workers

How different employees and managers manage stress

Not everyone will handle stress in exactly the same way, so creating a one-size-fits-all approach is not a workable answer.

For example, an American Psychological Association study found that both men and women were able to walk off some of their stress. However, when men are stressed, they’re predisposed to a “fight or flight” reaction, meaning they either become argumentative or feel helpless and drop into a bad mood in an attempt to escape the problem. Women, on the other hand, tend towards treatment and nurturing activities, including spending more time with friends and family—all while searching for help.

Introverts and extroverts handle stress differently as well. Introverts gravitate towards time by themselves, time to prepare for social situations, and they prefer to develop a plan they can follow. In contrast, extroverts often find too much alone time stressful because they can't talk through their thoughts and feelings, which is how they generally prefer to process and manage stress.

What managers can do to help employees handle stress

First and foremost, lead by example. If managers are showing stress, it can amplify stress for employees. You can also:

  • Make work/life balance a priority for everyone
  • Help employees understand how their work contributes to the organization’s success
  • Manage workloads and set realistic goals
  • Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your team
  • Enable performance instead of managing it
  • Be as flexible as possible
  • Make mental health a priority, encourage employees to talk about stress, and offer opportunities to get help
  • Watch for early warning signs of burnout
  • Decreased productivity
  • Worsening performance
  • Increased cynicism 
  • Withdrawal, unwillingness to interact with others

Here is what doesn’t work: asking employees to work more hours, ignoring or avoiding problems, and working during “personal” time. 

What managers can do to handle their own stress

For managers, you can:

  • Allow your team members to do their share of the work
  • Recognize physical signs of stress (stiff muscles, headaches, teeth grinding)
  • Get enough sleep and exercise
  • Take breaks and time off from work
  • Celebrate small wins
  • Don’t try to be all things to all people

Here’s what doesn’t work: not delegating when it makes sense, trying to over-control every situation, and not asking for help.

Stress doesn’t have to lead to burnout.

Although the previously mentioned Deloitte study found that 91% of employees have an unmanageable amount of stress, which negatively affects the quality of their work, burnout is not inevitable.

By recognizing that stress is a problem, watching carefully for the signs of burnout, and avoiding actions or attitudes that create stress, managers can also diminish the burnout that causes employees to become disconnected or even quit.

How MMA can help

MMA can help you find best practice solutions that may include:

  • Creating a business case for investing in employee well-being
  • Development of strategic well-being plans
  • Communication strategy support
  • Turn-key tools and programs
  • Review of third-party vendor solutions
  • Monitoring and tracking program progress
  • Mental health assessment and management tools
  • Data analysis and strategic implementation

For now, start by reviewing some of our free resources, such as our Mental Health Toolkit and Well-being Communications Toolkit . To learn more or find out about further resources we can provide, contact your local MMA Team.