If your company shifted to remote work due to the pandemic, your team members have now spent month after month walking just a few steps inside their homes to “commute” to work each day. On the surface, they might seem fine for the most part. They’re attending all their Zoom meetings, making progress on various projects, and perhaps even joining virtual karaoke happy hours.
However, for over a year, employees have been working in isolation, dealing with health concerns, worrying about job insecurity, juggling heavy workloads, and keeping track of changing priorities. These are all conditions that breed depression, loneliness, anxiety, and burnout.
Consider this: software company Limeade conducted an employee survey on burnout a few months prior to the start of the pandemic and found that 42% of its employees were burned out. Then, a few months after the pandemic began, the company surveyed its employees again. This time, over half its workforce (72%) reported burnout.
Whether you call burnout “pandemic fatigue,” “mental fog,” “work/life blur,” “an extended vacuum,” or “an endless wait,” it’s a long, slow, slippery slope—and your employees could be suffering from it in non-obvious ways.
In some parts of the world, the pandemic is raging on. In other parts of the world, the crisis is starting to improve. No matter where in the world you are, it’s more important than ever that you learn to recognize the signs of employee burnout so you can immediately take steps to help and turn the situation around, minimizing the consequences.
What are some of those consequences? In a 2020 report, Gallup found that employees who say that they “very often or always experience burnout at work” are:
63% more likely to take a sick day
23% more likely to go to the emergency room
2.6 times more likely to be actively job hunting
When employee health suffers, organizational health suffers, too. And whenever an employee leaves for a new job, you’ll suddenly find yourself having to go through a time-consuming, expensive hiring process. Keeping your team and organization healthy starts with understanding what causes employee burnout in the first place.
According to burnout researchers Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach, employee burnout occurs when there’s a mismatch between an organization and its employees in one or more of the following areas:
Workers’ amount of control
Sense of community
The distribution of rewards
Under normal circumstances, most workplaces usually manage to get a good handle on the above issues and create a healthier balance between work and life for employees—but the pandemic disrupted that. Suddenly, work became home, and home became work. Without a commute, employees were logged onto Slack, checking their emails, and chipping away at projects around the clock. In a poll conducted just a few months into the pandemic, Monster found that two-thirds of Americans were experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home.
What are a few things some employers haven’t done that have unintentionally caused burnout during the pandemic? For one, some haven’t adjusted workloads in a time when many people are dealing with sudden, serious changes in their personal lives. According to research by Gallup, the risk of burnout increases “significantly when employees exceed 50 hours” and becomes “even higher after 60 hours.”
Some employers also haven’t given people the control and flexibility they need. The ability to work from home is only one part of the equation; traditional 9-5 hours haven’t been easy for everyone to maintain. For example, as daycare centers and schools closed early on, parents found themselves having to help their kids with online school during the day (not to mention having to deal with distractions like spilled juice and sibling fights during meetings). Working earlier or later during the day might fit parents’ schedules better.
Additionally, some employers haven’t scaled back on meetings. They already held too many meetings pre-pandemic (an estimated 55 million a day in the United States!), and transferring those meetings to a virtual setting has meant subjecting employees to unhealthy amounts of screen time, complete with Zoom fatigue, eye strain, and neck and shoulder pain.
One of the keys to recognizing burnout on your team is understanding the difference between burnout and stress. Stress plays a role in the type of burnout being experienced.
Everyone experiences stress. It’s how our bodies react to challenging circumstances in life. As SHRM breaks it down, there are three main types of stress:
Acute Stress: A person with acute stress undergoes a “fight or flight” response. The person’s symptoms go away along with the stressor. Of the three types of stress, acute stress is the most prevalent.
Episodic Acute Stress: If a person frequently experiences acute stress and doesn’t recuperate, their ability to tolerate stress will decrease. They’ll also become more sensitive to stressors.
Chronic Stress: Over time, if a person finds themselves in situations where they feel a lack of control over how things turn out, they’ll risk damaging their health on both a mental and physical level. This type of stress is long-term.
So, how is burnout different? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO states that the three markers of burnout are “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,” “increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job,” and “reduced professional efficacy.”
The WHO goes as far as to say that burnout “refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
So, while you can be stressed out over an upcoming surgery procedure or speech, those are situations that eventually get resolved. Stressed people believe that they’ll feel better if they can get everything under control. However, burned-out people go through chronic prolonged suffering (burnout develops over time) and start to disengage.
So, what are some warning signs of employee burnout? Look for:
A noticeable change in work quality
Cynicism, irritability, and/or boredom
Not taking a day off for over three months (granted, given the travel situation of the past year and counting, employees might feel like using PTO to take a staycation is a “waste”)
Other red flags you might notice include sleep deprivation, tense body language, and no longer joining company social events. Burnout happens in stages, and depending on the signs you see, you might be able to determine which stage the employee is in.
At its core, burnout is caused by organizational issues. You can’t solve it by telling people to focus on self-care, paying for their gym memberships, and sending them happy hour invites. Those are all important for fostering employee well-being, but combating burnout requires actively listening to your employees, honestly reflecting on the state of your organization, and making the necessary changes to turn things around.
It’s crucial that you intervene as soon as possible. A good starting point is taking some time to have an empathetic talk with the employee you suspect is suffering from burnout. Find out what challenges they’re facing in their personal or professional life. From there, you and the employee can collaborate to find solutions, such as better balance and more effective prioritization of tasks during each workday.
Strive to blend compassion with containment. You need to hear out the employee, find solutions, and reassure them throughout, but you should also know when to calmly, professionally challenge your employee’s behavior. For instance, if a burned-out employee is frequently irritable, you can tell them that they can express those emotions privately or with you, but it’s not appropriate for them to lash out at the rest of the team.
In addition to helping individual employees with their burnout, you can take steps to address burnout across your team or even the entire organization. Just take a look at how the executive vice president and chief people officer of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE), Alan May, did so. HPE was tackling burnout before the pandemic in various ways, including having “meetingless Fridays” and creating virtual social chat groups where employees could convene. Thanks to these efforts, July 2020 data from HPE showed that 91% of employees said HPE prioritized employee health and well-being.
You don’t have to copy May’s approach. You can brainstorm other creative ways to keep burnout at bay. Some ideas include:
Starting or revamping a one-on-one program that helps employees build strong, honest relationships with you (or whoever their manager is) and grow in their careers
Encouraging employees to get sunshine each day
Reassessing employees’ workloads and making adjustments as necessary
Advocating to have a company-wide PTO day every quarter (that won’t cut into employees’ PTO hours)
Allowing employees to shift their start times in a way that makes sense for their family life
Putting together a local mental health resource guide
Organizing a refresh of your company’s values and getting employee input
Creating an environment that helps employees feel their work is valued
These are just a few ways you can help your employees stay on top of their mental and physical health. In our next blog post, we’ll dive into more ways you can prevent employee burnout at your organization—based on some things the pandemic has taught us.
A company org chart is a foundation for creating a transparent culture, which can help you recognize and address employee burnout. Sign up for a Pingboard account to share your company’s org chart as part of your company’s goal to increase transparency—and keep burnout at bay.
Want even more tips on navigating burnout on your team? Listen to our podcast!