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Tackling Workplace Burnout

July 22, 2019
An engineering-manager-turned-stress-coach shares his insights from the manufacturing floor.

It can happen to anyone. Students. Doctors. Parents. Manufacturing employees.

With commitments to work, family, fitness and friends, we are constantly stretched for time. We become overloaded and overwhelmed, and stress and burnout are too often the result.

I should know. In 2014, as an engineering business development manager at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies, I was commuting more than 120 miles to work each day. When I came home in the evening, I spent as much time as possible with my family. My schedule left little time for sleep and relaxation. I became increasingly irritable, slept badly and suffered from high blood pressure, backaches, moderate depression, dizzy spells and stomach pains. Despite these symptoms, I didn’t connect my issues to stress. I ignored these issues until I suffered a mental and physical breakdown that kept me bedridden for eight months.

The Devastating Effects of Stress

Workplace stress and burnout have overwhelming consequences for employees and employers. Stress and mental disabilities account for 15% of missed days at Freudenberg. The number one reason—muscular-skeletal problems--is often related to mental fatigue, tension, anxiety or excess of stress. Likewise, the number two reason—respiratory-system issues—can also be stress-related.

Given these statistics, it’s not surprising that burnout and stress are costing businesses a bundle. One study found that stress, anxiety and depression underpin most work-related illnesses and account for millions of employee sick days. Another noted that employee burnout is the single biggest threat to building an engaged workforce. A full 95% of human resource experts surveyed in a third study acknowledged that burnout and stress sabotage workplace retention.

During the past four years of my recovery, I’ve changed a good many things, including completing a two-year training program on mediation and coaching, and taken classes to become a burnout coach and consultant. Working with my coach and mentor Renate Pasch, I’ve become a passionate advocate of PEP (Personal Energy Protection), an approach that tackles the severe impacts of workplace stress and burnout.

In a push to protect employee health and well-being, Freudenberg is tackling these health issues. The company has implemented one- and two-day PEP training programs to help employees understand and identify the effects of stress in themselves and in their coworkers.

Since 2015, we have educated nearly 850 employees, from Brazil to Sweden, on how to recognize their bodies’ warning signs before they suffer from stress and burnout. We anticipate teaching another 150 this year. Many of those we help will be managers and team leaders who learn to recognize the symptoms of burnout and stress in their employees and push them to seek assistance and change.

The PEP program has been enthusiastically accepted throughout our facilities in Europe and the Americas. For manufacturing organizations looking to explore a workplace burnout initiative, I offer the following insights.

1. Getting Started: Burnout and stress can impact the workplace financially, motivationally, organizationally, and from a safety standpoint. When an organization identifies and addresses burnout and stress as an issue, a culture shift that puts employees first takes hold. Freudenberg’s PEP intends to create a company culture that allows our employees to recognize, discuss and manage possible stress-related disorders and illnesses.

A company’s intranet can be a good initial platform to inform employees about stress and burnout. Include links to TED talks & articles on the subject, write newsletters, or as I did, include a personal story that can help employees relate and maybe help identify their own issues.

2. Personalizing the Program: Tailor burnout and stress training to the various employee groups within the organization: hourly employees; salaried people; managers and team leaders; and leadership. Recognize that these groups face unique stressors. I’ve found that part-time employee stressors tend to be financial while managers responsible for multiple roles (boss / project manager / project employees) struggle to meet the needs of multiple parties. Executives on the other hand, report stress with their transition from mid-level manager to executive. Training that targets unique needs and circumstances helps build buy-in and understanding. It also creates recognition at the group or team level about what to watch for and how to assist coworkers who are being impacted by stress and burnout.

PEP seminars set out to inform participants about the symptoms of stress and the possible causes from psychological, neurological and biological standpoints. Employees are given exercises tailored to their needs and tools to identify stressors and their causes in order to manage and or eliminate them.

An expanded PEP leadership module covers the roles and responsibilities of leaders for that group. It looks in-depth at how leaders can identify overstressed employees and what to do on multiple levels to support them.

The teams module concentrates on the stress subculture within a team or department. In these workshops, managers and their employees embark on defining individual, type-specific stressors and developing new “rules” for the team to implement regarding communications, group interactions, job responsibilities, team management and work culture.

Engaged employees have the ability to organize their own team without the participation of the team leader/department manager. Sometimes a manager wants honest feedback from the team without being part of the group. Other times the manager would like to work with the team to jointly determine the issues and define how the new team should work together in the future.

3. Recognizing Results: The seeds of culture change may not take root quickly. Try not to rush things. Identify and communicate your successes, thereby perpetuating the method and the message. Work to understand and change any missteps.

Freudenberg has not specifically tracked whether employee absences due to stress-related disorders have decreased as a result of the PEP approach because so many factors can be involved. However, demand for this program has grown, and the number of associates who enroll is increasing annually.

4. Committing for the Long-term: Understand that this is not a one-and-done course. A long-term change in thinking is required, involving ongoing work. Reaching your audience may not be the issue; the issue may be keeping them on the right track with personalized follow-up and encouragement.

Behavioral change is key to shifting stress culture. When people leave these seminars, they should be held accountable for what they want or need to change. This could mean having a partner to talk to on a regular basis, which is recommended in every PEP seminar conducted at Freudenberg and is followed by participants in the majority of cases.

Some PEP participants have started “PEP Corners” that are held regularly to review what was learned and to discuss updates and feedback. PEP leaders have made it part of their weekly meetings to discuss issues they have themselves or things they noticed with their employees.

The key is to keep the culture you want to achieve present. Ultimately employees must decide to change their behavior, and the organization must be willing to support the change. Shifting your stress culture must move beyond verbal agreements. Management and executives must actively show support for change by changing their own behaviors and encouraging similar changes in their employees and direct reports.

5. Connecting Resources: Whenever possible, link your network of health care resources to provide additional savings and value. Does your company-sponsored healthcare plan offer workshops and follow-up programs for burnout and stress? Does it sponsor wellness challenges and benefits like health club subsidies?  These are important tools to provide to employees who have been educated about burnout and stress.

At Freudenberg, company “wellness ambassadors” encourage employees at every location in the Americas to participate in programs to improve their health. They’ve established centrally planned programs to address weight loss, biometric screening, daily walking and exercise, healthy snacks and meals and partnerships with health and fitness companies to offer employees discounts on memberships, health devices and apps to track their progress. They also launched a monthly wellness newsletter. All of these programs work together to aid employees’ health and wellness.

People haven’t evolved at the speed at which the mental, physical and chemical stressors in our environment have, and we need new tools, approaches and understanding to address our hyper-speed surroundings. Freudenberg had the foresight to help me turn a crushing experience into an enormous win for the organization.

Jason Kohn serves as trainer and coach at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies. Kohn joined Freudenberg in 1997 and has since held several engineering and management positions in product and process development. In 2015, he earned an additional degree in mediation and coaching, and trained to become a burnout consultant. He is a PEP trainer and coach, conducting seminars for Freudenberg in Europe and the Americas.

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