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Employers Urged to Redesign Work to Prevent Burnout


Many U.S. workers are struggling with mental health issues, which are not only impacting their work, but are also often caused by work.

Joe Grasso, vice president of workforce transformation at Lyra Health, a provider of workforce mental health benefits, presented on how employers can help reduce mental health harm through work redesign, company policies, and management practices that enhance employee well-being.

He spoke June 24 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2024 (SHRM24) in Chicago.

Research conducted by Lyra found that 90% of workers say they are facing mental health challenges, leading to less focus, less engagement, and less productivity at work. 

The research also found that the work experience itself is a top driver of poor mental health. Employers can help change this by designing work to be healthier for people, said Grasso, a licensed clinical psychologist. 

“Occupational health and safety compels employers to mitigate workplace risks, including low job control, work overload, and poor managerial support,” he said. “These factors contribute to burnout, depression, and anxiety while increasing turnover and health care claims.”

Burnout Is an Occupational Hazard

Burnout is a clinical mental health condition uniquely caused by work, Grasso said. “Someone who is dealing with clinical levels of burnout is dealing with levels of stress that significantly increase the likelihood of a cardiovascular event,” he explained. “Burnout can depress the immune system and often co-occurs with anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Burnout takes a toll on all aspects of someone’s quality of life, including their mental health, and their physical health. It also negatively impacts the business in terms of turnover, presenteeism, and absenteeism.”

Grasso said that the most common employer solutions—such as employee assistance programs, wellness programs, and mental health days—have their place but are insufficient, given the severity of the problem. And the reason these tactics don’t work? Because the problem is the work experience itself, he said.

Fixing Work, Not the Worker

When it comes to supporting workplace mental health, employers have to focus on the psychological health and safety of work, Grasso said. “That means thinking about how work is designed in ways that prevent severe stress and burnout in the first place.”

He explained that psychological risk in the workplace relates to the potential of psychosocial hazards causing a stress response, which can result in harm that impacts an individual’s health, safety, and well-being.

Common psychosocial hazards include lack of role clarity; excessive workload; job control; incivility; inadequate reward or recognition; and workplace violence, bullying, and harassment.

Psychosocial risk management is the solution, Grasso said: “It is a systematic and iterative approach to control the aspects of work/life that are causing harm to people.”

Grasso added that these interventions are not only in the best interest of the employer, but also cost little money and can be scaled across the business. “Often, when I introduce this concept, I’m told that you can’t eliminate stress from work,” he said. “That’s not what is being asked. Employers are simply being asked to conduct a risk assessment and then reduce hazardous risk to a reasonable degree.”

Psychosocial risk management can be performed in four steps:

  1. Collect and review data to identify hazards. Survey your workforce to understand what aspects of work are affecting which people at work and to what degree, Grasso said.
  2. Consult with the people impacted by negative aspects of work. This is done through debriefs, focus groups, and interviews. “Talk with them. Ask, ‘How do the issues show up?’ ‘What is driving the issues?’ ‘What would help alleviate the issues?’ ” he said.
  3. Take that quantitative and qualitative data and testimony and invest in control strategies through changes in practices, policies, and work environment redesign. “Try to fix what’s not working,” Grasso said. “That means through management behaviors, ways of working, organizationwide policies, and social and physical aspects of work.”
  4. Cycle through the process again, reviewing what is effective and what needs additional work.

“It’s not meant to be a one and done,” Grasso said. “It’s something that can be revisited annually, or more often.”

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