Tackling chronic stress and burnout in the workplace needs to start at an organisational level, one of Australia’s leading health commentators says.
Dr Norman Swan, a multi-award-winning broadcaster and author, said chronic stress has one of the most profound effects on the brain, and in turn, the whole body.
“When your brain goes, your mind goes and your brain is part of your body, connected to the rest of your body,” Dr Swan told the Future Women Leadership Summit 2022 this week.
“And what happens in your brain affects the rest of your body. And what happens in the rest of your body affects your brain, and your brain is attune with your environment.”
He said chronic stress affects the hormones in the brain, which has a domino effect on blood pressure, the immune system, the endocrine system, and reproductive system.
Dr Swan said research has found one of the most prominent factors leading to chronic stress is locus of control – or how much control people feel they have over situations.
Dr Norman Swan described the impact of burnout at the Four Seasons in Sydney
“When you lose that locus of control, stuff, important stuff, happens in your brain,” he said.
“It happens at work when you have a crap boss, who micromanages you, who doesn’t allow you to make decisions about how you’re doing your job.”
He said a good work system sets targets, gives guidance, and lets staff get on with their work.
“A bad workplace forces it, pushes you into a narrow space where you feel you have little latitude to express your talents,” he said.
Dr Swan said restructuring the workplace, and true flexibility at work are ways to tackle the issue.
“One of the things that creates a lot of stress is speaking with a forked tongue. So, saying you’re a flexible workplace when you’re clearly not. Not walking the talk,” he said.
“And knowing that people in flexible workplaces would give 110 per cent and people in inflexible workplaces often only give 85 to 90 per cent and know they are only giving 85 to 90 per cent because they don’t have that flexibility.
“So, it’s being able to actually have a workplace where you can speak up.
He said researchers who have studied burnout found some workplaces are positive and proactive about making positive changes towards staff mental health, and some aren’t.
Dr Norman Swan delivered a keynote address at Future Women’s Leadership Summit 2022
“Sometimes you know you’re in a workplace where you can change stuff, you can have an honest conversation, you can do that in a safe environment,” he said.
“And some workplaces you know you can’t. And so sometimes you actually do have to move on.
“I suspect too many people move on from workplaces where they could actually change it for the better in terms of inflexibility.”
“Even if you have a lousy boss, it’s the system that’s allowing that person to be a lousy boss rather than something that’s wrong with that person themselves.”
Dr Swan said unfortunately he didn’t have a “magic solution” to solving chronic stress in the workplace.
Though, he said it was important to note it was usually down to a broken system than a bad manager.
“But it’s systems based. It’s the system in which you’re in, it’s not the individual,” he said.