University of CanterburyFriday 17 August 2012, 11:42AM
Media release from University of Canterbury
While the Christchurch earthquakes have eased, stress and burnout
are emerging and increasing in the city's workplaces, a leading
University of Canterbury researcher says.
Kate van Heugten has been interviewing frontline workers as well as
managers in Christchurch has found many are experiencing
significantly higher levels of stress, because of the impact of the
"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," van Heugten said today.
"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, 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 on the
University of Canterbury campus next Wednesday, August 22.
"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
"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
"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
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, more likely to take sick leave or
"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
"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
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.