Sickness is a corporate epidemic. Industrial/organisational and business psychologists are currently inundated with work because of the rise of occupational stress and burnout taking place in the modern workplace. We have a culture of presenteeism; a 24/7 working lifestyle that is hard to switch off. Entrepreneurs and small-business owners are no exception to this rule. In fact, many business owners work longer hours due to the weight of responsibility that they bear. The on-off switch has been perpetually left on as new business owners have failed to grasp the importance of what should be mandatory self-care. But it’s not just business owners that suffer. Employees working for business owners are also at risk of burnout if greater emphasis is not placed on organisational wellbeing.
Globalisation, and the fixation on pleasing key shareholders at the cost of staff well-being, has led to a culture of insecurity. Employees no longer feel safe at work; they understand that the instability can lead to mass redundancies with little notice. The unstable nature of working life has led to higher rates of occupational stress, with potential burnout, which has a trickle-down effect within the organisation. In essence, stressed out bosses stress out their staff.
The opposite of burnout is engagement, yet very little has been done to prevent burnout at work. The focus in recent years has shifted towards looking at interventions that promote workplace engagement, but the emphasis has been on the individual employee; thus, placing the onus on the employee to manage their workplace well-being. If systematic and structural level stressors are the causes of stress, such methods often remain fruitless pursuits.
Yet, it is in the best interests of the organisation to concentrate on staff wellbeing. The effects of occupational stress and burnout often do not lie in isolation – the atmosphere at work often change, meaning reduced morale in many workers. Stress and burnout also result in higher sickness absence or loss of productivity for those that do go to work, resulting in higher attrition and staff turnover.
It’s important for small business owners to be examples to their employees. Setting healthy expectations is imperative. Caroline Naguib, an entrepreneur and co-founder of the PR consultancy, Infomatrix PR, argues that taking time out for alone time is key. Setting some daily priorities and knowing the difference between what is important and urgent and what is not, is useful in defining healthy boundaries. We all need time out and this time alone can be fruitful in gaining essential clarity for the business.
Another point is that we need to understand that employees are different. How they’re wired and what makes them tick can be incredibly different to what makes us business owners tick. We need to speak our employees’ language and work with them, not against them.
Trusting our employees is imperative. Agile working is taking off across Europe and studies have found that those working from home are actually more productive than those working in collaboration in an office. Why? Because they found that employees that felt trusted to work alone wanted to please their bosses because of the trust instilled in them. They also recognised the merits of having autonomy, with longstanding studies showing that greater decision latitude resulted in greater employee wellbeing (to a high degree).
Lastly, taking time out for yourself by taking time off and eating lunch, as well as time for family and self-care (and ensuring your staff do the same) is crucial to maintaining a healthy working culture and ensuring the success of your organisation.
Sarah Tottle, Business Psychologist and Coach