The stacking effects of remote work, homeschooling, and uncertainty led to a spike in burnout early on in the pandemic. A May 2020 Korn Ferry survey of 7000 U.S.-based employees found that a staggering 73 percent of professionals already felt burned-out. As the pandemic lingers, the problem is getting even more complex.
To be clear, the pandemic isn’t entirely to blame for the current burnout problem. In some professions, including clinical medicine, over fifty percent of professionals reported burnout before the arrival of Covid-19. Still, there is evidence that the pandemic has exasperated burnout, especially among healthcare workers on the frontlines. There is also evidence that some demographics are suffering more than others. Unpaid caregivers, who include a disproportionate number of women, are especially at risk.
Left unaddressed, organizations will pay a high cost now and for years to come. Pre-pandemic, the World Health Organization estimated that 615 million people worldwide were suffering from depression and anxiety at a price tag estimated to total $1 trillion in lost productivity annually.
Fortunately, we don’t have to sit back and let the effects of burnout run their course. Burnout is nearly always avoidable with the right interventions.
Burnout isn’t just a colloquial way of describing how we feel when our work starts to drain our energy or compromise our wellbeing. The World Health Organization defined burnout as a type of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” According to the WHO, burnout presents itself on three levels:
While burnout is most often understood to be a mental health issue, its effects are mental and physical. As reported in a 2018 study published in Open Medicine, burnout isn’t just associated with stress and depression. It is also linked to “physical health impediments such as muscle pain, headache, insomnia, respiratory illnesses, and gastrointestinal disorders.” For this reason, burnout comes at a high cost to organizations. Organizations pay in lost productivity. And, when employees leave, they also foot the bill for recruitment and onboarding.
As a manager, taking care of your team is always a priority. With the move to remote work, doing this work just got more challenging. There is less available data to make informed decisions and more variables impacting our team members’ performance. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible– there are proactive ways you can support your team and mitigate the possibility of burnout.
Start by putting on your own oxygen mask. Taking care of yourself is the best way to position yourself to support others. Also, walking your talk will send out a clear message of what self-care looks like. As a start, put up clear boundaries around the workday. While you may want or assume that you need to be accessible to your team members 24/7, doing so may not be in your best interest or their best interest. Commit to being accessible while also protecting your time to rest, recover, and recharge.
Most people don’t realize how impacted they are by their environment. However, there is considerable evidence that working in a clean, decluttered, brightly lit space has a significant impact on how we work and feel about our work. Pre-pandemic, this led many organizations to spend millions on workplace design.
Since the pandemic, workplace design has become an afterthought. But it doesn’t need to be this way. As a manager, you can’t dictate how remote workers set up a home office. You can offer suggestions on how to make the most of even the most cramped spaces. Some companies have even gone a step further. They are permitting workers to bring home both equipment and furniture.
Keep fostering genuine connections, and remember that videoconference isn’t the only way to connect! For example, try doing a “walking call” with just one member of your team. The different pace, contexts, and modes of communication will open up new opportunities to connect.
Also, check-in on a regular basis. You don’t need to ask if they are feeling burnt out. Few employees will admit to this. Instead, get specific. Ask your team members if they are still feeling connected and ask about where and how they are having the most impact. If you work in an organization where managerial relations are formal, try instituting “buddy check-ins” between peers instead.
As emphasized in one recently published study on burnout prevention, the best burnout prevention programs don’t merely focus on changing how we work. They also focus on how we live. As the study’s authors conclude, “Burnout prevention programs may be more effective by not only focusing on employer-initiated actions in the workplace but including employee-initiated actions and factors outside the work domain as well.”
To this end, also encourage your team members to keep replenishing their bucket list of fun things to do on their time off. If you already have an open and informal relationship with your team members, encourage them to share ideas and photos of things they are doing outside of work. Also, if you have people on your team with children, share ideas on best practices to support remote schooling plans. Treat your team as a resource that can not only support your work but also your ability to thrive outside the workplace.
A long “schlog” may seem like the best way to get work done, but this isn’t always the case. Encourage your team to engage in short sprints of work. By doing this, you’ll move the dial on projects more quickly. Don’t forget– seeing results is the best way to increase professional efficacy. Shifting between periods of intense work and rest is also the best way to trigger flow.
While there is no question that some workers in some sectors are thriving, in others, burnout is on the rise. As the pandemic persists, burnout is also expected to become a growing problem, especially for workers taxed with the dual burden of unpaid home care and remote work.
Existing research suggests that burnout prevention interventions can have a significant impact on improving employee outcomes but with one caveat–the effects of these initiatives are often only experienced on a short-term basis. Using existing research on burnout as a guidepost, the message is clear: workplace burnout prevention initiatives can and do have an impact, but to be fully effective, these preventive measures need to be delivered on an ongoing basis.
Dr. Camille Preston, Business Psychologist, Leadership Expert, Dr. Camille Preston founded AIM Leadership in 2004 with the vision of applying the fundamentals of psychology to support leadership in high-growth, high-pressure business environments. Camille is a pioneer in business psychology. At the forefront of applying both individual and systems-based approaches in new ways, she supports CEOs and their teams to triumph over the challenges in disrupted, complex workplaces. Working with Camille, clients learn how to effectively map priorities, change behaviors to increase influence, and optimize holistic systems (individual + team + organization) to drive results. Most importantly, Camille helps clients dig deep to identify and resolve any underlying causes preventing their success.