That sinking feeling

Stress, overwhelm and burnout at work

Words by Sophie Parrott|Design by Matt Bonnar

Excessive workloads, unrealistic deadlines, ‘always on’ cultures, unsatisfactory working conditions, lack of support, or a mixture of all the preceding factors, causes millions of employees to feel anxious and stressed. If this mental exertion is sustained over a long period of time, then it could lead to burnout – which is damaging for the both the individual and the business.

Research from the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of UK adults were so stressed over the last year that they felt unable to cope with day-to-day activities at certain points. The study – which was commissioned by YouGov to launch Mental Health Awareness Week – found that more than six in ten feel a constant sense of dread caused by the stress of their day-to-day lives, while almost a third of people (32%) experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings as a result of increased stress.

In 2018, 74% of UK adults felt so stressed that they, at some point, felt overwhelmed and unable to cope

– Mental Health Foundation

As the dedicated people function, it is HR’s responsibility to have support mechanisms in place that help employees who are struggling with stress and anxiety. Not only will this benefit the individual wellbeing of employees, but the business will reap the benefits if its workforce is happy, productive and stress-free.

Executive Coach Rebecca Zucker understands that the cognitive impacts of feeling overwhelmed can range from forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and mental slowness to an impaired ability to problem solve.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Zucker explains that increased demands and heavy workloads, that are sustained over a long period of time, can translate into cognitive fatigue which makes our thinking less agile and makes us more prone to distraction.

However, she believes there are numerous ways for employees to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed if they can pinpoint the primary source of overwhelm and get to the root cause of where the stress comes from.

She explains that if a project is contributing to high stress levels then breaking down the task into more manageable components will help with meeting deadlines. Additionally, learning to challenge perfectionism will help mitigate against psychological distress and procrastination.


‘Start with training line managers’

Claire Metcalfe, Senior HR Business Partner at MTR Crossrail believes that employees can be better helped with stress and overwhelm if line managers are better equipped to help. She explains: “I think it really starts with making sure that line managers are well equipped, well trained and aware of the sorts of issues that employees may come to them with because they are the people who often tend to have the best relationship with the people who are feeling overwhelmed.”

Additionally, Metcalfe cites good occupational health providers as an important step for HR to consider too. “[Organisations] need to work closely with occupational health providers and employee assistance programmes to try and educate people as much as possible as to how they can identify signs [of overwhelm].”

Two-thirds feel a constant sense of dread caused by the stress of their day-to-day lives


79% of UK women admitted to feeling the effects of stress and anxiety, with two-thirds of men stating the same

- Perkbox

‘HR is a valuable function for employees needing extra support’

Michelle Wren, HR Director at Freedom Finance understands HR as a function which exists outside of an employee’s day-to-day tasks and is therefore able to give perspective to any stress they are suffering. “By speaking to someone outside of their immediate team, they are able to cut through the fog and work through their challenges in a clearer, more prioritised way,” she adds. “Employees should be encouraged to have a frank and honest conversation with their HR team, whose role it is to listen and respond to their concerns. Whether it’s supporting with personal matters, or simply coaching them to manage time more effectively, at work.”

Wren believes that HR can lead by helping shape an organisation’s working patterns. At her firm, working hours can be adapted to meet the needs of the individual. She adds: “It’s important to provide a positive work-life balance to create a professional synergy.”


Learning the signs of overwhelm

According to Psychology Today there are several warning signs that employers should be looking out for amongst their workforce that indicate employees are overwhelmed. They include:

  • Disengagement
  • Increased cynicism
  • Frequent sickness absence
  • Chronic low energy
  • Exhaustion
  • Unable to properly recharge

‘Implement Mental Health First Aid’

Julieann Brennan, Head of HR at Jurys Inn and Leonardo Hotels UK & Ireland, explains that the famous hotel chains implement some of the newest wellness schemes in order to care for their employees.

“To ensure our people don’t feel overwhelmed or stressed, our hotels and offices are encouraged to come up with activities and initiatives that provide the newest and highest standards of workplace wellness, health, and safety to its employees,” she says. These include open-door policies, employee assistance programmes, buddy systems, regular employee reviews and comprehensive induction programmes.

She adds that in 2019 the firm also introduced Mental Health First Aid training which has trained 75 employees across all levels of the organisation in Mental Health First Aid. She says: “This new initiative…focusses on listening, giving support and encouraging individuals to seek support from friends and family, as well as seeking professional help where appropriate. The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, with the training being used to the benefit of both employees and guests alike.”

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