Uncomfortable reading for employers this week in the shape of research suggesting a third of workers are in danger of ‘burning out’ due to longer hours and excessive pressure.

The findings of the Towers Watson study are perhaps not that surprising. In an uncertain economic climate, employees are concerned for their jobs and keen to show commitment to the business. They are taking less holiday, racking the hours up and tipping up to work even if they are ill and should really be at home.

Many companies have of course cut jobs – or held back on recruitment – with the result that less people are being expected to do more work. A fifth of the survey respondents felt they were being asked to do an unreasonable amount of work with 30 per cent claiming their company was under-resourced.

Of course the trouble is that if people are working in a pressure cooker environment, they can only stand the heat for so long. Long hours and unrealistic demands soon start to take their toll and people become either ill, demotivated or unproductive. The Towers Watson research showed a clear link between levels of well-being and engagement and overall employee performance. Companies with low engagement produced an average operating margin of around 10 per cent while those with high engagement performed nearly three times better, with operating margins of over 27 per cent.

Managers do of course have a duty of care – and indeed a legal responsibility – to make sure that work is not making their employees ill. Pressure at work can, however, sometimes be more perceived than actual. Employees may even be putting themselves under unnecessary stress out of fear for their jobs or because of a lack of understanding about what’s expected of them.

Sometimes, small subtle changes can make a huge difference to how people feel about their jobs – and to how well they perform in them as a result. So what can you as a manager do to make sure you pick up on signs of burn out early and create a positive and healthy working environment?

Know the signs

Stress can show itself in many ways and not everyone is affected the same. Indecision, lack of enthusiasm and a tendency to make mistakes are however, common signs that someone is beginning to feel the strain. People who are in a state of anxiety may also exhibit extremes of behaviour – either becoming withdrawn and emotional or tipping over into anger and aggression. There may even be physical symptoms, such as shaking, frequent stomach problems or weight gain or loss. In general, if an employee starts behaving out of character or their performance dips or becomes erratic, it’s probably time to take a closer look at what is going on.

Be clear about what’s expected

Sometimes, people become anxious because they don’t really know what’s expected of them. No-one has sat down and explained priorities, timescales and what needs to be achieved by when. As a result, employees often throw themselves into a frenzy of activity, trying to be all things to all people and not doing anything particularly well. They become reactive rather than proactive, jumping for whoever shouts the loudest and feeling that they have to say yes to everything. Make sure you hold regular, one to one reviews with your team so that everyone knows what’s important and has the opportunity to raise issues and concerns. Make sure they know that it’s acceptable for them to ring alarm bells if they feel they are being overloaded and can’t do what you’re asking.

Review the way work is organised

When the pressure is on everyone – managers included – tends to go into fire fighting mode. They just plough on, doing whatever is most pressing at the time, without thinking about whether there are easier or more efficient ways to organise things. It is important, however, to raise your head occasionally and look at how work is being conducted and distributed in your team. Is there unnecessary duplication between some job roles? Is one person being given an unreasonable amount to do because they are the only person who knows how to carry out a particular task Sometimes, quite simple interventions can make a huge difference and can relieve pressure on the team. A short weekly meeting, for example, could help to identify where there are overlaps or spare capacity. Better use of technology could cut down admin. A quick informal training session could result in more people who are able to multi-task and help each other out. Make sure you ask your team for their ideas on how work should be organised too. The people on the front line are often best placed to tell you how things could be done differently.

Promote positive relationships

Toxic work environments are a prime cause of stress. If aggressive or bullying behaviour is allowed to take hold, it will have a huge effect on people’s confidence and self esteem. If there are ‘warring factions’ within the department or team, the atmosphere will be unpleasant and people will be tiptoeing round each other. As a manager, it’s important you don’t tolerate inappropriate behaviour or let conflicts fester. Give people feedback so they have a better understanding of the impact their behaviour may be having on others. Help people understand each other’s working styles so they can make adjustments to the way they deal with each other. Have your antennae out for problems in the team so that you can intervene and nip them in the bud early. And even when the pressure is on, try and find opportunities for the team to have fun together. It doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive – just the chance to relax and chat over a cuppa and some cakes or the occasional team lunch can do much to create a good atmosphere and help people gel.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

So much stress and anxiety emanates from the fact that people are confused and uncertain about the future. We are all now working in an environment of constant change, but if you keep people in the loop, they won’t worry unnecessarily about what’s around the corner. Keep the lines of communication open with your team and make sure they know they can discuss ideas, issues and concerns with you. You won’t always be able to give people all the answers, but you can usually tell them something – and if you don’t they will waste time and energy gossiping, speculating and often winding themselves up without cause. If people have the bigger picture of where the business is headed and are clear about the part they need to play, they are much more likely to give you their best performance.

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Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.