Striking a balance between professional responsibilities and personal life can often be challenging, but there are techniques to help employees manage their work life in a healthy and productive way. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be an extremely beneficial method to help employees achieve a sense of work-life balance.

CBT is a structured, goal-oriented form of psychotherapy developed by Dr Aaron Beck in the 1960s. It aims to identify and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to emotional distress. The goal is for individuals to gain a better understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in order to develop healthy coping mechanisms.

CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are interlinked, that if we make changes to what we are thinking and alter how we behave, then this in turn impacts how we are feeling and make a positive psychological impact. Clinical trials have proven that CBT is effective for treating various disorders, including Depression and anxiety disorders such as Panic Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Complex Trauma, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as addictive conditions and more serious illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder. The process of CBT treatment is not only helpful for treating these more serious mental conditions, but it can also help individuals manage unhealthy stress levels.

Before understanding how and when CBT can be effective for managing burnout, it is first important to learn how to recognise signs of workplace stress, either as an employer or an employee.

Signs of workplace stress and burnout

Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It can occur when an individual experiences long-term stress at work, particularly in a physically or emotionally draining role. It can be difficult for those experiencing burnout to see how to make positive change to their situation, or for employers to recognise the signs and provide sufficient support.

Behavioural signs of employee burnout

  •   Withdrawing from responsibilities
  •   Taking out frustrations on peers
  •   Skipping work
  •   Being late for work or necessary appointments
  •   Isolating from others
  •   Procrastinating and taking longer to complete tasks
  •   Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope

Emotional signs of employee burnout

  •   Senses of failure and self-doubt
  •   Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  •   Loss of motivation
  •   Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  •   Decreased satisfaction or sense of accomplishment

Combatting work-related stress using CBT

CBT is proven to be effective for combating excessive stress at work. The following steps outline how CBT works to help employees manage workplace challenges.

  1. Identifying and addressing negative thought patterns

One of the key elements of CBT is recognising and challenging negative thought patterns that fuel burnout. Employees may experience “cognitive distortions” where they perceive situations from an overly negative perspective, leading to increased levels of stress. Through CBT, individuals can learn to recognise these common thought patterns and replace them with balanced and constructive thoughts to foster a more positive mindset.

For example, an employee facing a challenging project may initially feel overwhelmed about completing the task on time or to the expected standard. Through CBT, they can challenge these thought patterns by evaluating evidence to the contrary, such as considering previous successful projects. This process helps in reducing anxiety and building the self-confidence to tackle the task at hand.

  1. Developing effective coping strategies

Work-related stressors can feel overwhelming, which often spirals into unproductive coping mechanisms like avoidance or excessive self-criticism. CBT equips individuals with effective coping strategies to manage stress in healthier ways. This may involve problem-solving skills, time management techniques, and relaxation exercises that employees can apply to alleviate work pressures and maintain a sense of control over their workload.

  1. Setting realistic goals and priorities

CBT encourages individuals to set realistic and achievable goals, helping them prioritise tasks and manage their time more efficiently. By understanding what is genuinely attainable within a given timeframe, employees can avoid overcommitting themselves and reduce the risk of burnout.

  1. Enhancing communication and assertiveness

Effective communication is crucial for maintaining these boundaries. CBT assists individuals in improving their communication skills, enabling them to express their needs and concerns to colleagues and supervisors. By demonstrating assertiveness, employees can establish reasonable boundaries that promote their wellbeing.

  1. Encouraging self-care and work-life integration

CBT emphasises the importance of self-care and encourages individuals to incorporate activities that promote relaxation and wellness into their daily routines. This could include mindfulness practices, regular exercise, hobbies, and spending quality time with loved ones. CBT can also help employees find ways to integrate their work and personal lives harmoniously to reduce feelings of conflict between the two.

  1. Building resilience and emotional intelligence

Workplace challenges can test an employee’s resilience and affect emotional intelligence. CBT fosters the development of these essential traits by providing tools to navigate through difficult situations and bounce back from setbacks. Employees with higher emotional intelligence can better manage workplace stressors, foster positive relationships, and adapt to changes and uncertainties.

Although many people focus on the benefits of CBT to treat more serious mental disorders, it is just as effective for providing individuals with the tools they need to combat unnecessarily stress at work, prevent burnout, and achieve a healthy work-life balance. By raising awareness of the techniques and methods outlined above, both employees and employers can help foster an environment of support, productivity, and flexibility in the workplace.

Dr Julia Lyons
Psychology Team Leader at Onebright | Website | + posts

Dr Julia Lyons leads the Psychology Team at Onebright. She has a particular interest in working with individuals with complex trauma and has worked for community mental health teams and private healthcare providers offering therapy, supervision, training, consultancy and service development. Julia has also held a lectureship position at The University of Manchester. She has a keen research interest and has published several papers and chapters.