UC News - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

Stress, burnout following in wake of quakes

Associate Professor Kate van Heugten

17 August 2012

While the Christchurch earthquakes have eased, stress and burnout are emerging and increasing in the city’s workplaces, a leading University of Canterbury researcher has found.

Associate Professor Kate van Heugten (Social and Political Sciences) has been interviewing frontline workers as well as managers in Christchurch and has found many are experiencing significantly higher levels of stress because of the impact of the earthquakes.

"People are showing physical, cognitive and behavioural signs of stress overload. Physical signs include tiredness that isn’t overcome by sleep and rest, infections, skin irritations and stomach upsets," Professor van Heugten said.

"Cognitively, when people are under stress, they begin to find it harder to think through problems and prioritise, they may feel down or easily irritated. They may have difficulty sleeping, or want to sleep all the time, under or over eat, drink to excess, and cry more or be more argumentative with colleagues."

As part of her research, Professor van Heugten interviewed people from government and quasi-government departments, non-government organisations, health, mental health, child protection, justice, welfare, education and industry groups. She will be delivering a free public lecture on the issue at UC on Wednesday 22 August as part of the University's What if Wednesdays lecture series.

"There are multiple reasons for stress following the earthquakes, and many people are dealing with challenges at home as well as at work. Stress may be a result of overload, dealing with ongoing uncertainty including around funding, inadequate workspaces and other resource problems, and poor social and professional support.

"Some people have found that workloads increased but, for others, workload problems have arisen due to clients presenting with more complex problems, or because staff members who have left have not been replaced.

"While some workers may have been able to make short-term additional efforts during the time of crisis immediately after major earthquakes, over time exhaustion has set in, especially for people who have had little respite."

Disconcertingly some workers, including middle managers, had felt that their extra efforts in the aftermath of the earthquakes had perhaps been taken for granted in that expectations had not been reduced back to levels that were manageable in the longer term, she said.

Burnout was an end product of unrelenting tiredness leading to emotional exhaustion. When people were truly burned out, they also lost their capacity for empathy, they might appear cynical and they tended to have a low self-esteem.

These workers were inclined to lose their attachment to the workplace, were less productive and more likely to take sick leave or resign.

"In terms of causes, research has shown that it is factors in the organisation, rather than in the person, that lead to burnout. Factors that are implicated are not just high workloads. Workers are more likely to burn out in organisations where they experience lack of control over how they work, unreasonably tight regulations, and where they don’t feel the organisation treats them with fairness and respect, or they feel disillusioned about the organisation’s values.

"In the aftermath of an ongoing major community crisis such as the earthquakes, people’s capacity for work will be reduced, at the same time as a range of demands on them may potentially increase. In this context it is foreseeable that workers will become exhausted and may ultimately suffer burnout unless organisations take proper account of that. Practical support, coupled with respectful empathic communication, goes a long way in terms of retaining loyalty."

Professor van Heugten, who has written a book on the subject, said people suffering stress needed to have some fun things in their life - exercise was important, laughing at work and spending time with family and friends helped improve their state of minds. Before burnout, having short breaks was helpful. Once people were burned out, it was essentially too late for minor measures.


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