Coping Mechanisms for Burn-Out: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

by Quan on August 27, 2021

Clients loved her. Her team loved her. Projects always seemed to stay magically on-track, no matter the obstacles. Sally was always one of your best project managers… until she wasn’t, seemingly overnight.

sydney-sims-fZ2hMpHIrbI-unsplash

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Now clients have a new favourite. Half her team have left, and the other half are considering it. Projects are derailed time and again, disrupted by hurdles that yesterday would’ve felt easy to overcome. 

It wasn’t overnight though, was it? 

The warning signs were there months ago, when her team started to walk on eggshells – first, wary of adding to Sally’s obvious exhaustion, then to avoid getting snapped at.

The signs were there when her team stopped asking for support, more afraid of incurring frustration than making mistakes. They were there when Sally stopped noticing or caring about those mistakes; when her standards slipped.  

They were there when Sally was always in the office before her team, and always there once they’d left. They were there in the 10pm emails, and the 7am Slacks. In the fourteen coffees and skipped lunches. In the 20-days untaken holiday. 

The truth is, burn-out is insidious but not invisible. 

HR and wellness professionals must become adept at spotting these early warning signs, and then helping your Sallys build healthy coping mechanisms. Before teams, projects, client relationships and eventually, whole organizations, are thrown off track. 

Healthy coping mechanisms versus unhealthy coping mechanisms

Few of us have faced such upheaval as the pandemic, especially upheaval that impacts both personal and professional spheres at once. It’s a profoundly uncertain, stressful and intense situation.

How well we cope depends on our coping mechanisms – that is, “the thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations.” Critically, coping mechanisms are “conscious and voluntary” acts, as opposed defence mechanisms which are “subconscious or unconscious adaptive responses”.

In other words, coping mechanisms are consciously learned. That’s important because it means, thanks to the unprecedented unprecedentedness of the past year, employees are less likely to know how to cope. They’ve never learned what healthy coping mechanisms for a global pandemic look like – so in place of healthy coping mechanisms you get maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Maladaptive coping refers to “coping mechanisms that are associated with poor mental health outcomes and higher levels of psychopathology symptoms. These include disengagement, avoidance, and emotional suppression.”

Positive Psychology share fifteen examples of maladaptive coping mechanisms:

  • Substance abuse
  • Extreme, ongoing negative rumination
  • Intrusive involuntary negative thoughts
  • Emotional numbing
  • Escapism 
  • Maladaptive daydreaming
  • Procrastination 
  • Self-harm and binge eating
  • Blaming and self-blaming
  • Behavioural disengagement 
  • Risk-taking behaviour 
  • Excessive worrying and sensitivity
  • Seeking continual reassurance
  • Anxious avoidance 

The problem is, besides these behaviours being inherently undesirable, unproductive, and often harmful, these mechanisms are actively counterproductive. Research continually proves they escalate distress, correlating with anxiety and depression. Potentially turning a short(ish)-term problem into something much longer-term and harder to resolve. 

Healthy coping mechanisms, on the other hand, proactively help master – or at least, minimize – distress, to tolerable levels. They’re integral on an individual level for health and wellbeing, and on an organizational level for continued engagement, productivity, and retention. 

These healthy coping mechanisms are typically grouped into four categories (and as we’ll explore in a moment, they’re useful for different situations. For coping with workplace burn-out, some techniques here work better than others): 

  1. Problem-focussed coping. People harnessing problem-focussed coping mechanisms seek to unearth the root of the problem, then take control by learning new skills to change or eliminate the issue.
  2. Emotion-focussed coping. People harnessing emotion-focussed coping mechanisms seek to manage the emotions around the source of distress, for example with meditation, relaxation techniques, humour or positive reframing.
  3. Meaning-focussed coping. People harnessing meaning-focussed coping mechanisms draw on their personal beliefs and values to derive meaning from a situation. For example, focussing on the benefits in a negative situation.
  4. Social coping. People harnessing social coping mechanisms seek emotional or material support from their community, colleagues, friends, and family. 

Each of these categories is positive – but different coping mechanisms are more effective in different situations. 

Research shows, for example, that problem-focussed coping isn’t effective if a situation is uncontrollable or chronic and can actually worsen disengagement. Likewise, emotion-focussed coping is less effective if it entails distancing or avoidance as a means of sidestepping emotions rather than processing. 

A nuanced issue demands a nuanced solution 

There’s a huge amount of nuance here that a single blog post can’t do justice to, but the point is this: coping with burn-out is hugely complex and multi-faceted. There’s no silver bullet – every employee across your organization has different needs, perspectives, and priorities. 

Sometimes that might feel an insurmountable challenge, especially for large global businesses. Too often, well-being professionals are hamstrung by disinterested executives with other priorities and unrealistic expectations. There’ll always be people confused to hear well-being isn’t “fixed” just by hiring a Chief Wellness Officer and investing in curative spot-solutions over cultural change

Even where companies have invested heavily into well-being and employee assistance programs, there’s often too little data and too little progress. It’s typically been difficult to even get the measure of the problem, let alone develop a personal approach that recognizes and caters effectively to employees’ individual needs.

That’s where HR and well-being professionals have the biggest scope to make an impact at the moment. Almost every organization globally is facing a burn-out crisis and few have worked out how to help. Those that can stand to win big, keeping your best people in-house (and firing on all cylinders) as well as attracting those flocking away from competitors. 

Burn-out has become a ubiquitous issue – and one that threatens a tsunami of talent that’ll completely overturn the competitive landscape. To kickstart business recovery, HR and well-being professionals must focus on embedding resilience into the workforce – working with individuals to build healthy coping mechanisms for burn-out. 

At speed and scale, that’ll prove impossible without a platform to automate gathering, analyzing, and acting on granular employee well-being data. 


Quan’s digital platform is science-backed employee well-being software that helps you effortlessly put your people at the heart of success. Book a short demo to see for yourself.

Topics: Burnout