Top Ten Work Trends Quarterly Updates

A diverse group of SIOP members are serving as Trend Champions for the people-related work trends that SIOP members collaboratively predicted to be the most impactful in 2022. Each Trend Champion has expertise in and professional passion for their trend subject. SIOP appreciates their service to the profession in providing quarterly updates on their chosen topics.

Find the full list of topics and links to the other Top 10 Work Trends here

Trend #7: Stress and Burnout

2022 3rd Quarter Update

How can chronic work stress translate into longer-term mental and physical health consequences? By referring to a commonly known survival mechanism, commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Simply stated, when faced with a perceived threat, the body triggers a protective response by releasing a cascade of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) meant to prepare an animal to fend off or escape that threat. Once the threat ceases, the body recovers, returning to normal.

Threat exposure leads first to psychological (e.g., fear, tension, anxiety), physiological (e.g., cortisol, epinephrine), and psychosomatic (e.g., sleep disturbances, headaches, fatigue) strain responses. If the threat remains unabated, the body continues to release stress hormones and consume physical, mental, and emotional resources, potentially leading to longer term and more difficult-to-treat psychiatric, immune, cardiovascular, or metabolic impairments and disease endpoints (e.g., CVD, diabetes, clinical depression).

In modern times, fight or flight responses are triggered by threats not only to our physical well-being, but also our emotional well-being. In the work context, threats can be conceptualized as stressors. A work stressor is anything that an employee perceives as requiring sustained effort within the workplace that results in physical, cognitive, or emotional costs. Examples include, but are not limited to, excessive work demands, unsupportive or abusive colleagues, or failure to meet expectations. There are several ways in which work stress may exceed an employee’s ability to successfully cope and recover (i.e., allostatic overload), only one of which we discuss here – the inability to stop the stress response after a work stressor is resolved or left behind.

How do we continue to react to stressors “left” at work? Via work-related rumination. Work-related rumination is defined as repetitive thinking that leaves individuals unable to escape from work. Those who ruminate relive past, negative workplace events, prolonging the body’s stress response, and delaying or preventing recovery. Repeated activation of the fight or flight response increases an employee’s susceptibility to short- and long-term impacts of work stress. Conversely, psychologically detaching (i.e., mentally removing oneself) from work stressors during nonworking hours can decease that susceptibility.

One way to psychologically detach from distressing workplace experiences is to practice daily mindfulness. Those who are mindful are present in the moment and are aware, but remain nonjudgmental, of the events, experiences, thoughts, and feelings unfolding within or around them. With practice, mindfulness may provide the tools we need to understand and manage emotions, improve focus, and reduce feelings of stress. For some guidance on how to be more mindful in and out of work, click here.

2022 2nd Quarter Update

As reported in my 2022 1st Quarter Update, burnout is an “organizational phenomenon”, caused by ongoing work-related stress that is characterized by a lack of confidence (i.e., inefficacy), exhaustion, and distrust (i.e., cynicism), reports of which have only increased since the pandemic. Within the work context, burnout hurts organizational and employee success by reducing performance and creativity and increasing workplace accidents and absences (Gabriel & Aguinis, 2022). While an “organizational phenomenon”, burnout also may lead to health problems, such as heart disease, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, among others.

So, what can be done to reduce burnout and associated work- and health-related problems? A recently published article seeks to answer that question. Industrial-organizational psychologist Herman Aguinis and graduate student Kelly Gabriel (2022) examined the existing literature and provided the following evidence-based recommendations to help organizations “prevent and combat burnout”: 

  1. Provide stress management interventions, particularly cognitive-behavioral training (CBT) and mindfulness. CBT helps employees change negative thought patterns and develop positive coping skills. Mindfulness, on the other hand, helps employees adapt to stressful events to reduce tension. Read more about CBT and mindfulness in the workplace here and here.
  2. Allow employees to actively craft their work. The term “job crafting” describes employees’ ability to improve their job’s characteristics (e.g., changing tasks, relationships, or how they see their jobs) to improve meaning, enjoyment, and reduce burnout. Read more about job crafting, including examples, here.
  3. Cultivate and encourage social support. Social support comes from a variety of sources, including friends, family, supervisors, and coworkers, and can take the forms of giving advice and guidance, listening, and assisting. Social support does not include forced social interactions, which may add to employee job stress.
  4. Engage employees in decision-making. To facilitate, managers should consider ways that employee participation in decision-making is most valuable. As only examples, valuable opportunities to gather employee input include decisions regarding organizational effectiveness, the implementation of or modification to organizational systems and procedures that might affect them, and the acquisition of resources to promote performance, well-being, and work-life balance.
  5. Implement high-quality performance management. Performance management is “a continuous process of identifying, measuring, and developing the performance of individuals and teams and aligning performance with strategic goals of the organization (Aguinis, 2019, p. 8). Performance management should be equitable and strength-, rather than weakness-, based, which includes rewarding a job well done and providing feedback that is timely, frequent, specific, verifiable, and highlights employee strengths. 

As I previously reported, employee burnout is a “systems-level problem” not an “individual-level problem” that all levels of an organization must work together to solve. Recognizing this, Gabriel and Aguinis (2022) included strategies that both employees (e.g., stress interventions) and organizations (e.g., positive and supportive work cultures) can implement. In doing so, they note that interventions, such as CBT and mindfulness, cannot correct organizational problems that contribute to burnout and other work-related issues. In other words, it takes a village.

2022 1st Quarter Update

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an “organizational phenomenon”, caused by ongoing work-related stress that is characterized by a lack of confidence (i.e., inefficacy), exhaustion, and distrust (i.e., cynicism). However, some experts believe that burnout is not limited to the workplace. Instead, they argue that burnout results from chronic stress experienced in and outside of the workplace.

Regardless of its cause, burnout may lead to health problems, such as heart disease, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, among others (see also, The Washington Post, 2021). Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened existing (e.g., long work hours; job insecurity) and ushered in new (e.g., increased demands at home) sources of stress into all areas of life. This increased employee burnout – an ongoing, widespread issue that organizational psychologists have been working to understand and manage since the pandemic began. These sources of stress are diverse and ongoing, and have a greater impact on lower-income households, higher-risk racial and ethnic groups, parents, and women.

Reducing employee stress and burnout in a (soon-to-be) post-pandemic world is one of the “intractable challenges” organizational psychologists must solve. The American Psychological Association's 2021 Work and Well-being Survey reflected this challenge. The survey showed that 59% of employees agreed that prioritizing their mental health has become more important since the pandemic began. This survey also found that the percentage of employees reporting chronic exposure to work-related stress and mental, emotional, and physical fatigue has skyrocketed since 2019. This report represents employees from various organizations, occupations, and industries, though burnout has affected healthcare providers, educators, and first responders more than others.

Employee burnout is a “systems-level problem” not an “individual-level problem” that all levels of an organization must work together to solve. As a result, many companies have partnered with organizational psychologists to identify and offer more workplace benefits and programs to improve employee well-being and continued productivity. Example benefits include additional paid time off, child-, pet-, and elder-care, as well as more flexible and remote work schedules (e.g., The Washington Post, 2021).

None of these workplace benefits or programs are a cure-all. Take remote work, for example. While remote work has many benefits (e.g., increased productivity and autonomy; decreased commuting costs), it also creates other sources of stress, such as work-life conflict and Zoom fatigue, which can lead to burnout. For instance, in one study, remote employees, especially parents, said that balancing work and family obligations is difficult and stressful. 

Because remote work is here to stay, the design of remote working arrangements (and others) is key to minimizing their potential drawbacks. Depending on an employee’s situation, remote work may not be possible, while others may benefit from remote work or a hybrid approach to it. A successful hybrid approach, however, should emphasize in-person contact for some, but not other, activities. A team meeting, for example, is one activity that may benefit from in-person contact, facilitating collaboration and reducing virtual meeting fatigue. 

Addressing employee stress and burnout through workplace benefits, programs, and interventions is a complex problem. Organizations should use psychological science and evidence-based practices to find the best solution for their specific challenges. Partnerships with organizational psychologists who are trained to enhance both employee and organizational health and well-being are vital to this effort. 

Champion: Michele Gazica, PhD

Michele Gazicka, PhD

Dr. Michele Gazica teaches courses in industrial-organizational psychology and has additional expertise in legal analysis and test and measurement theory. Her research falls primarily within the field of occupational health psychology and focuses on meaningful work, the work-family interface, and work stress. Her work has been published in outlets, such as the Journal of Vocational Behavior, International Journal of Stress Management, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, among others. Michele received her Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of South Florida and her Juris Doctor from the University of Florida. Before choosing to pursue her Ph.D., Dr. Gazica practiced law for seven years.