Work exhaustion is common at the end of the year. In South Africa, these stress levels and feeling burned out have increased among employees since June this year.

This is according to the Global State of the Workplace report, which found that 43% of employees were experiencing high-stress levels. Meanwhile, 61% were already feeling the effects of work burnout.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) and Independent Online (IOL) hosted a webinar discussing this phenomenon. IOL Business Journalist, Vusi Adonis, termed this as an epidemic of the workplace that is impacting both employees and companies in SA.

Burnout explained

Dr Frans Korb, a psychiatrist and SADAG Board Member, defined burnout as the point at which important, meaningful and challenging work becomes unpleasant and unfulfilling. Where one’s work should be important and mean a lot to them, it becomes challenging for them to be engaged in their work environment. 

Korb said that the main signs from a practical point of view are lethargy and exhaustion about work or the workplace.

“Secondly, lacking motivation can lead to cynicism and negative emotion. This starts with the loss of purpose in the work situation and cognitive problems like a lack of focus, concentration, and memory. Lastly, the job performance is affected, and you lose your professional efficiency,” said Korb.

Korb said burnout could look like acute depression as the employee becomes less present.  

“You start not worrying about your diet, how you present yourself, hygiene – all these things decline. You become preoccupied with work because you’re not accomplishing anything. It also feels like you have to do more to feel like you are achieving something,” he said.  

Burnout and presenteeism

Korb said that burnout could lead to presenteeism. This means that the person is physically at work but not functioning properly. 

“This leads to reduced productivity despite increasing effort into working more. The person becomes more socially withdrawn and avoids meetings and work-related social situations. They can also have more physical complaints and utilise medical reasons as excuses not to come to work,” Korb explained.

He added that presenteeism is often confused with laziness. The person may seem like they don’t want to do things anymore. 

Trickling effects of depression

One in four South African employees has been diagnosed with depression. A total of 54% of people with depression say they struggle to complete tasks that are usually simple. Research says that, on average, employees dealing with depression can take 18 days off from work. This negatively impacts the work output, projects, other employees, and the company.  

Korb described depression as a “whole body illness”, that can affect an individual’s daily life. 

“It’s not only feeling sad, down and unable to enjoy things anymore. They are psychological things, like hopelessness or helplessness. And if it’s unmanaged, one can start developing suicidal thoughts.”

Korb added that being aware of and coping well with stress is the first step to preventing burnout. 

“If you don’t cope with and manage stress, this can lead to burnout. And if you don’t manage burnout properly, which most people don’t do, it will go over into clinical depression.”

Taking care of yourself 

Dr Colinda Linda, SADAG Chairperson and clinical psychologist, recommends doing micro-recoveries daily to bring ease into our minds and understand recovery completely differently.

“Psychologically detach from work. It won’t help to just sit quietly and try to disconnect, we need to have substitute activities. Even building a puzzle, cooking something, talking to someone, or gaming. All these little activities help to detach psychologically,” said Linda.

She said it is important to physically get away from your desk and work devices to do something else as a micro detachment throughout the day. Short meditations and breathing exercises can also help revitalise the mind and psychologically detach. 

Setting the alarm to skip away from work every two hours for 10 minutes can make a difference in your productivity and overall work life. 

Take a breather whenever possible

“Look at something else other than your screen. Look at the trees outside, ornaments or birds, anything to help yourself micro-shift at a sensory level for about 30 to 60 seconds. Another way you can do this is with music. Listen to something §you enjoy for at least four minutes,” said Linda.

 Linda recommends practising a resting movement by closing your eyes and gently placing the hands over the eye socket and resting on the palm. Lean forward and sit in this position for at least a minute. 

“Have things around the office like plants and ornaments to give you indirect exposure to things outside work. Outdoor and walk-about meetings can also be an option for some work environments,” she said. 

Support remains crucial

Linda emphasised that micro recoveries work but having support hand-in-hand with them is also advised for people experiencing burnout. 

“Having support is an essential mediator within the stress, burnout, life, health, and professional performance relationship,” said Linda.  

Vanishaa Gordhan, SADAG operations manager, said the organisation runs a static employee assistance programme. It aims to enhance mental well-being in the workplace by providing professional support for personal problems and adversity and improving the quality of a person’s life. The benefits include a positive work environment, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, improved work-life management, and lower incidences of burnout. – Health-e News

Newsletter Sign Up
Subscribe to our newsletter