Maintaining mental wellness at work

Korn Ferry chats with psychology professor Kalina Michalska, Ph.D., to learn more about the science of stress and burnout and what employers can do to address employee mental health.

Chloe Carr

Associate/Communications Specialist, Korn Ferry Institute

Over the last three years, companies have come to learn just how much mental health can impact the workplace. More and more employees are reported feeling stressed and burnt out, as they grapple with swelling workloads, global crises, and economic uncertainty. And it's having a profound impact on performance: according to Korn Ferry's own research, workplace stress can lead to low employee engagement, absenteeism, loss of productivity, employee turnover, and rising expenses.

As more professionals become vocal about their mental wellness, an increasing number of organizations are starting to find ways to address burnout in the workplace. But to continue to make progress, leaders first need to understand the science behind these concepts. "Stress, burnout, and anxiety are such ubiquitous terms that they are often used interchangeably," says Kalina Michalska, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. "Yet, their scientific definitions are distinct."

Whereas stress is a person's "appraisal of a given situation as uncontrollable or unmanageable," Michalska explains, anxiety is the physiological or psychological response to stressful life experiences—including workplace stress. Burnout, however, is specific to work, resulting from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed," she says. By understanding how stress, burnout, and anxiety manifest at work, organizations can better implement more meaningful, intentional efforts to address employee wellbeing.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, Korn Ferry chatted with Michalska to learn more about the science of stress and burnout, and what employers can do to help create a safe and supportive workplace for all.

Korn Ferry: Burnout has been a hot topic recently, and research shows that 40% of turnover is due to employee burnout. What are some common signs of stress and burnout in the workplace?

KM: Stress and burnout can look different in different people, and individuals may express or conceal their burnout in idiosyncratic ways. However, a common characteristic of burnout is emotional exhaustion at work. All of us might feel exhausted during or following an important deadline, but the kind of exhaustion that is characteristic of burnout is more chronic and pervasive rather than time limited. We see less enthusiasm and overall mental distancing from work and the work environment. Productivity takes a hit. As burnt-out employees attempt to conserve energy, we also see disengagement and listlessness during professional meetings.

KF: What are possible indicators that an employee may be struggling? How can employers address them?

KM: Comparing an employee’s energy levels, social engagement, and productivity to their previous performance can provide clues about whether they may be struggling. Indicators include an employee working much longer hours than previously while being far less efficient and productive. Other red flags are disengagement from the give-and-take social interactions with peers and supervisors and overall flat affect. An employee may seem distracted or uninterested in the work they are doing. All these behaviors could be a sign that they are struggling psychologically. Employers can address these indicators in several ways. Most importantly, it is paramount that employers offer comprehensive health insurance options that include mental health care coverage. When an employee is struggling, allowing them to take personal days or extended leave, where appropriate. In general, exercising compassionate accountability whereby mental health care accommodations are provided without stigmatizing them while expectations are clearly communicated. Sometimes expectations need to be adjusted to allow an employee to return to a healthy level of functioning.

KF: How does the brain process stress, and how might stress affect the brain over time?

KM: Persistent and inescapable stressors can have lasting consequences on the brain and behavior, even in adulthood. When a situation is appraised as stressful, the brain activates many neuronal circuits to adapt to the demand. When the distress is long-lasting, it may rewire your brain over time. We know from the animal literature that animals that experience chronic levels of stress have less activation in the prefrontal cortex—a brain region responsible for emotion regulation, cognitive control, and high-level tasks like those required for creative thinking and problem solving. We also see elevated activation in brain regions that respond to threat and survival, like the amygdala. Over the long term, areas responsible for handling threats become persistently over-active, even in situations that are not threatening, whereas areas responsible for complex cognition and perspective taking become under-active. Another consistent effect of chronic stress on brain structure is a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus, a key region for learning and memory formation, as well as on the prefrontal cortex.

KF: Does stress, a common component of a work environment, impact the brain's ability to process information and perform complex tasks? If so, how?

KM: Unquestionably. As many of us can attest to, stress is not universally bad for our ability to process complex tasks. Sometimes, momentary stress can increase adrenaline and heighten our attention and focus. Effective coping implies that a stress response is activated rapidly when it is needed and is efficiently terminated afterwards. If, however, the stress response is inadequate or excessive and prolonged, this can dampen our focus and decrease creativity.

A useful framework [comes] from scientists [Jim] Blascovich and [Joe] Tomaka, who explain that when the demands of a given situation are perceived to outweigh one’s available resources, we experience the situation as a threat and are inclined to avoid it. On the other hand, when resources are perceived to approximate or exceed the demands of a situation, we experience the situation as a challenge and are mobilized to think creatively to take on that challenge. These two motivational states—threat vs challenge—are associated with distinctive alterations in our physiological response system resulting in distinctive patterns of approach vs avoidance. We avoid situations we perceive to be threatening and approach situations we perceive as challenging.

KF: How might workplace culture impact mental health? What steps can companies take to create a supportive work environment?

KM: We spend so much time at work that it is inevitable that workplace culture will impact our mental health. Above all, the last decade has shown us that hustle culture has hurt, rather than helped, our wellbeing. If companies want to innovate and have a healthy workforce, they can no longer afford to neglect the mental health of their employees. To create a supportive work environment, companies must follow through on their declarations that mental health matters. Employees should not be expected to work beyond their agreed upon schedules, respond to emails at all hours, or give up breaks, vacations, or time off. These are as integral to a healthy work culture as setting clear expectations for advancement. Companies should incorporate mechanisms for employee feedback about workplace culture that is going well and others that need improvement. “How can I better support you?” should be a frequent invitation for feedback on the agenda.

KF: What is the impact of early intervention on mental health struggles? How can we develop effective prevention strategies?

KM: Prevention is always more effective than intervention and so we should strive to act pre-emptively to avoid employees from experiencing unmanageable stress and burnout. At the end of the day, people want to feel valued. When we value the people we work with, we care about their holistic well-being. This includes creating space for ensuring they rest, relax, and recharge. Prioritizing adequate rest, access to healthy nutrition, and exercise communicates to employees that their well-being is valued.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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