Donders Wonders

Donders 200 lecture on “burn-out: more than a mental issue” part 2.

This post is also available in Dutch.

In the second part of this series, we will focus on the story of work- and organizational psychologist Debby Beckers about how work conditions and attitudes may lead to a burn-out.

Image shows work related stress. CC0, Pexels.

Chronic stress causes burn-out, but where does the stress come from?
We are part of the issue
The stressor itself usually doesn’t persist for very long, Debby Beckers explains. The rest of the time we ourselves cause the stress by worrying about it. Thinking about a certain event can definitely be helpful: when it is functional, aimed at finding a solution, and also stops after a while. But when these thoughts keep coming back, when they’re repetitive, they don’t lead to anything but rather just create negative feelings. This gives rise to a downward spiral of restlessness and stress.

When does a work environment become stressful?
We can handle a lot as long as we have the feeling that we will make it to the end. We are in danger when we lose our sense of control and no longer know how to approach or resolve a situation. Work conditions that facilitate this are: high task demands like ‘too much work in too little time’ or ‘tasks too difficult’, a lack of social support from employers and colleagues, insufficient autonomy, and a lack of feedback.

International pressure on organizations demands more flexibility
The globalization of this day and age creates new stressors. Organizations compete globally, and this international competition causes extra pressure on the employer. We need to be increasingly innovative and effective while keeping costs low. To realize this, people try to be more flexible in organizations. they can, for example, choose where and when to produce something by moving production to countries with lower salaries. Or they can change what a ‘regular working day’ looks like: no more standard shifts from 9-5, and employees have to work flexibly. This pressure on organizations carries over to the work floor. There are fewer regular staff workers, which causes people to more often travel longer distances to work, job security decreases, working hours are irregular, and new techniques and developments demand employees who are multi-functional, i.e., the “all-rounders”.

Advice: we lead our own lives
So, it’s not strange that with all these developments the number of cases with chronic stress and burn-out increases. But what can we do to stop this? Debby Deckers advises us to be more parsimonious and critical with our own time and energy. Check your priorities: often there are only a few things that really matter, also in our private life. Try to differentiate between the “vital few” things that require your attention and the “trivial many” ones that perhaps don’t. This can also mean that we sometimes have to forgo a nice opportunity. Because we have to decide ourselves what our priorities are, or else someone else will decide for you. We lead our own lives.

More information:
If you are interested in the bodily processes involved in long term stress that underlie burn-out, read here the first part of this series.

Or read burn-out experienced Bregje Hofstede’s book “De herontdekking van het lichaam” (Dutch only)

Written by Mahur, edited by Annelies, translated by Felix.

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