Support groups for the overworked

The employee who is the first to arrive and the last to leave may be the celebrated ideal, but alongside a growing trend of workaholic support groups, is it time to declare the emperor is not wearing any clothes?

Support groups for the overworked

After widespread success in the US, a trend of sorts has made it to our shores – but there’s a sinister truth behind this latest fad, and HR must sit up and take notice.

Workaholics Anonymous is a support group in the same vein as its more well-known namesake Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). With groups now formed in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide – the idea is for participants to follow the 12-step recovery pattern of AA and encourages recovering workaholics to restore work-life balance.

“Being a workaholic is the celebrated addiction,” Jax, [not her real name] the convener of the Melbourne chapter of Workaholics Anonymous told The Age. “Work is the drug, the same as alcohol.”

The danger in ‘workaholism’ is its close links to burnout. Indeed a recent study found people are more likely to experience burnout when they are exposed to continuous stress and feel they have no other work alternative.

Organisational and industrial psychologist Dr Tim Hill said those with high ambition but a lack of stress management skills are at the highest risk for burnout. “If you’ve got a new hire who has a real need to prove themselves in a position that has a relative degree of difficulty, desire to prove themselves can turn into a compulsion – they may lose work/life balance, neglecting their needs if they have obvious behavioural changes, something like depersonalisation can be a strong indicator they’re on their way to burnout.”

Dr Hill also pointed to workplace bullying as a leading cause of workplace stress and burnout saying bullying often flies under the radar and workers sometimes feel reluctant to report it.

Causes of burnout:

  • continual job related stress
  • long hours
  • increased workload
  • poor stress or conflict management
  • workplace bullying

Warning signs:

  • increased absenteeism
  • increased workplace conflict
  • cynicism, isolation or detachment from others in the workplace

Your Employee Assitance Program (EAP) is a good place to turn to if employees in your organisation are suffering from stress related burnout but prevention is often more successful.

Addressing workplace stressors and expectations can prevent employees from feeling overwhelmed. Addressing employee’s ability to cope with stressors through stress management training can also be an excellent preventative measure, Hill said.

Considerations for HR:

  • set aside a dedicated relaxation space in the office that employees can use as a retreat when situations get stressful
  • have a policy to limit lengthy meetings
  • feeling supported in the workplace can help prevent burnout so consider implementing social wellness programs such as a lunch-hour walking club
  • flexible, or reorganised work schedules
  • consider offering stressed-out, long serving employees with the opportunity to take paid sabbaticals to travel overseas and participate in charity work
  • offer counselling services and encourage employees to make use of them
  • provide complimentary stress management training

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