10 Lessons the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Preventing Employee Burnout

7 minutes • May 24, 2021Employee Engagement
Illustration of two coworkers doing real time remote collaboration

For over a year, the pandemic has created conditions, such as working in isolation and dealing with rapidly shifting priorities, that have made your people especially susceptible to burnout. Just one individual person feeling the effects of burnout takes a toll on everyone around them —their peers, their manager, and possibly even your customers. 

To address employee burnout, it’s important that you recognize the signs and take action. However, that’s only one part of the equation. You should also seek to prevent employee burnout from happening in the first place. 

Here are 10 lessons the pandemic has taught us about keeping employee burnout at bay. 

1. Put Together an Action Plan—and Stay Open-Minded  

Many employees were in limbo when the pandemic started, unsure about how long remote work would last and scrambling to adjust. With the pandemic beginning to improve in parts of the world, some offices are opening again. 

If your company doesn’t already have a return plan, now is the time to map one out. Work with other company leaders to decide if your company will move forward with a fully remote, entirely in-person, or hybrid model. 

During these deliberations, acknowledge that things have changed. People have come up with new ways of doing their jobs (such as working nontraditional hours) that might help them work better, and some of the tasks that didn’t get accomplished during the lockdowns may not need to be done at all in the future. You can use these observations to build a plan that will help your employees continue to do their best work. For example, you might accommodate a broader mix of people working nontraditional hours. 

After you create your return plan, communicate it to employees so that they get a clear picture of what’s ahead. 

2. Hold Fewer Meetings 

Throughout the pandemic, employees have met over Zoom and other virtual conferencing platforms. These virtual meetings, while convenient, have spurred Zoom fatigue and health issues such as eye strain. And virtual or not, meetings have been shown to take a toll on productivity

By holding fewer meetings, you can save time and avoid these adverse effects. However, that doesn’t mean that you should immediately delete those meeting invites from the company calendar. Instead, evaluate your current recurring meetings, and from here on out, ask yourself if each meeting you’re planning is really necessary. 

You might realize that an email exchange or a Slack thread is just what it takes to resolve an issue or receive updates on an ongoing project. Say it turns out that a meeting is necessary. In that case, workplace expert Jennifer Moss recommends you ask yourself the following questions

  • Does this meeting have to be a video call?

  • Do we need more than 30 minutes for this meeting? 

  • Which employees need to be at this meeting? 

  • Can we keep our cameras off and use our photos or avatars instead?

  • Can we do an audio-only conference call to give our eyes a break?

Encourage all managers at your company to ask these questions when they’re planning meetings. That way, you can maximize the chances of only having necessary meetings and make any virtual meetings that do occur easier for employees to handle. 

3. Mix Up One-on-One Meetings With Non-Work Questions

One type of recurring meeting that your company should keep is one-on-ones between managers and their direct reports. After all, one-on-ones help employees feel valued and boost their productivity and engagement. 

However, to show employees that you care about them as people (and aren’t just there to check off boxes about their work output), managers should begin these meetings with non-work-related questions. Some of those questions could be: 

  • What’s one fun thing you’ve done this week? 

  • Do you have any weekend plans you’re excited about? 

  • Are you reading or watching anything that you’d recommend to others? 

Remember that managers could be suffering from burnout, too. If they are, they may not even recognize it in their direct reports. Make sure that the reporting structure at all levels of the company involves asking open-ended, non-work-related questions. 

4. Inspire Employees to Grow in Their Careers 

When employees feel like they work at a place where they can truly grow in their careers, they’ll feel more invested in their work and the corporate mission. This optimism can keep detachment and cynicism (two symptoms of burnout) away. 

To keep employees inspired, have their managers take them through career mapping exercises where they can see how their career journeys can pan out at your company. By going through these exercises, employees will have a clear picture of what they need to accomplish to get to the next level at your company. They won’t be left in the dark, wondering if all their work will be worth it in the end. 

Plus, the job market is very competitive right now. By knowing where your employees want to take their careers, you might be able to re-skill them in areas where they can both help the business and try something new. 

One-on-ones can be a great setting to start building and continue discussing these important growth conversations.

5. Help Managers Become Better Planners

However, companies should not take advantage of employees’ investment in their work. Heavy workloads can put employees at risk of burnout. By educating managers at your company to plan better, all employees can have manageable workloads and achieve a healthy work-life balance. 

Different tools can help managers plan and delegate tasks more efficiently. You might also decide to revamp how your company works as a whole. For example, here at Pingboard, we work in sprints and seasons. Before each sprint, we set aside an entire week to collaborate and plan exactly what needs to get done. This approach enables us to scope out our projects down to every possible detail. 

You might also decide that some work processes are better suited to some teams than others. At Pingboard, for instance, we have our frontline team members (those who speak to customers) work in rounds. That way, they each get time to work on individual projects, but someone is always available to talk to a customer during business hours.  

6. Empower Employees to Take Charge of Their Schedules 

One of the leading causes of burnout? A lack of control. That’s why it’s essential that you empower employees to feel a greater sense of control over their schedules. Encourage them to structure their workdays in a way that makes the most sense for them (and, of course, the team as a whole). 

For example, if you have a direct report who prefers to knock out tasks after dinner, you could avoid scheduling morning meetings with them and let them know that it’s ok if they want to start their day at noon instead of 9 AM. Or, maybe you have a direct report who has a medical appointment every Wednesday at 3 PM. You could inform them that it’s ok if they want to finish out their workday after each appointment, or just start working a bit earlier on Wednesdays. 

7. Encourage Employees to Step Away 

Breaks during the workday and PTO are both crucial ways to prevent burnout. Time away, whether in the short term or long term, helps employees reduce their stress and be more productive when they return. 

The pandemic has made traveling challenging, and in some cases, impossible. Some employees might not see the value in using their limited PTO days for a staycation. In fact, in a 2020 survey of U.S. office workers by staffing firm Robert Half, 28% of respondents indicated that they expected to take fewer days off in the summer of 2020 compared to the summer of 2019. Even before the pandemic, Americans left PTO days on the table (a jaw-dropping 768 million!). 

Encourage employees to take time for themselves. Create a culture that celebrates spending an extra 20 minutes after lunch every day to take a quick walk and requesting a Friday off for a camping trip. If employees are hesitant to use their PTO, you can implement these tips from Deloitte. 

8. Offer Employees Mental Health Support 

Throughout the pandemic, employees have struggled with (and seen others struggle with) mental and physical health concerns. Offering resources to help employees with their mental health is key to making them feel more at ease. 

Some ways you can do so? Create mental health resource pages and offer reduced hours, flexible hours, or PTO (or a combination) to employees experiencing mental or physical health issues (or who are taking care of a relative or friend who is). Other ideas include: 

By showing employees that you take their mental health seriously, they’ll know that you have their back personally and professionally. 

9. Help Employees Feel a Strong Sense of Connection 

In a 2020 study by Cigna, 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely—and lonely workers said they consider quitting their jobs more than twice as much as non-lonely workers. 

Loneliness and burnout are linked. As Harvard Medical School faculty member Jeremy Nobel wrote for Psychology Today, “the relationship between burnout and loneliness is a reciprocal one.” Burnout can cause “increased feelings of loneliness,” and loneliness “can exacerbate burnout.” 

Here are a few ways you can help employees feel a strong sense of connection at work: 

  • Have them play a fun quiz where they get to know each other

  • Host regular happy hours (everyone can show off their favorite drink over Zoom)

  • Create a mentorship program

If an employee doesn’t take part in these programs, and you sense that they are feeling lonely, consider sitting down with them for a quick check-in (or having their manager address it during their one-on-one). 

10. Poll Employees Regularly 

Last but not least, it’s vital that you keep a pulse on how your employees are feeling through regular polling. 

However, make sure that you build the poll in a way that will accurately capture signs of burnout. Don’t only focus on exhaustion or use one “yes or no” question. Specifically, you should avoid flat-out asking, “Are you burned out?” 

Not everyone defines burnout the same way. By structuring your poll incorrectly, you might get, for example, an employee who’s feeling overextended but is still involved and confident, answering that they’re burned out. You still need to address that employee’s situation (by giving them less work and more time off), but you won’t have enough data to know who is truly suffering from burnout. 

To design a poll that accurately measures burnout, a good place to start is with the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). From there, you can combine the MBI with other tools to get a complete picture of employee burnout. 

Remember: Burnout Doesn’t Mean an Employee Has Fallen Short

Employee burnout is a serious problem. It isn’t something that can be solved through better personal resilience or more effective individual coping. Educate managers at your company not to make these assumptions. Instead, they should understand that burnout does not imply personal shortcomings. You might even encourage your managers to attend leadership training that will help them become more empathetic toward employees suffering from burnout. 

Ultimately, if your organization wants to be a place that employees want to work for, now is the time to create or revamp policies that will encourage good mental health and keep burnout at bay. With the right policies and communication strategies, companies can be prepared for what the pandemic brings next—and for future crises.  

company org chart can help you create a corporate culture that prevents employee burnout from happening in the first place. Sign up for a Pingboard account to help everyone on your team feel strongly connected to each other—and keep burnout at bay.  

Want even more tips on navigating burnout on your team? Listen to our podcast!

Connect your people now with Pingboard