“Burnout” is a term that gets thrown around a little too casually. Using it without understanding what it really means desensitizes us to how catastrophic it can be for our careers and private lives.
Being tired after a long week of pulling 12-hour shifts isn’t burnout. Neither is having to deal with an obnoxious co-worker for a year. And, to keep matters topical, burnout isn’t feeling overwhelmed by having to work weird hours due to isolation.
Having said that, burnout isn’t uncommon, and it can have a serious impact on a person’s long-term wellbeing. Burnout can ruin lives. It can end careers and relationships. Its main symptoms include long-term exhaustion, a noticeable decline in performance, serious depression, a complete loss of motivation, as well as harmful physical symptoms like digestive issues and debilitating headaches — and sleepless nights.
Let’s first look at the root causes of burnout in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and then we’ll discuss the most effective strategies for avoiding it.
Burnout in the Midst of a Global Pandemic
Before looking at ways to help avoid burnout, it’s important to understand how the Covid-19 crisis is contributing to the likelihood of suffering from it. There’s no point in understanding solutions if we don’t understand the root causes.
Loss of revenue means job cuts. Job cuts mean increased expectations on remaining staff.
Concerns over job security have a tangible impact on a person’s ability to deal with work pressures.
Increased time spent at work means less time for mental recovery.
A general sense of dread and stress about the disease itself takes a psychological toll.
The impact of staff restructuring can lead to mismanagement and mixed signals on priorities or job functions.
Smaller teams mean fewer social interactions and support, both of which are crucial to reducing the likelihood of burnout.
In cases where lockdowns are enforced, staff members working from home are poorly managed, and the lines between their professional and personal lives can be blurred.
Then, of course, you have the compound effect of all of these causes. One or two of these is manageable. All of them together is a recipe for mass staff burnout.
Now that I’ve gotten you sufficiently worried about the problems and risks, let’s take a look at solutions. Because there are solutions, and most of them are relatively easy to implement.
Most of these need strong leadership skills to execute since there’s no way a manager can reasonably enforce certain behaviors. “Leading by example” might sound like a cliche, but in times like these, it may be a great idea to lean on some old-fashioned wisdom.
1. Suggest Dedicated Work-at-Home Spaces
Isolated staff members are at exceptional risk of burnout. It’s absolutely essential that they cultivate an environment as close to their professional space at home as possible. This means both physically and emotionally.
Having a room that can be converted into an office is ideal. Having space where the person feels “I’m at work now,” rather than “I’m in bed looking at my laptop” is vital because it creates a very clear boundary between work and personal life.
There are some great resources on how to convert an existing room into a space that either feels like a dedicated workspace or one that sustainably serves dual purposes.
2. Encourage Healthy Work-from-Home Schedules
This obviously goes both ways. A certain type of employee can very easily fall into the trap of overworking since they’re “constantly at work,” while another may do as little as possible because they’re “constantly at home.”
Fortunately, this conundrum is solved with the same set of solutions.
Firstly, encourage your staff to maintain a schedule. No matter how difficult or counter-intuitive it is for them, it’s essential that they stick to something resembling a pattern. Of course, there will be exceptions; enforcing this on some days will be easier than others.
The principle is the important thing, however. Acknowledge the importance of doing certain activities at certain times, the same way they would when they’re at work. If they maintain this mindset, it will become easy to stick to, and the tangible benefits will make them want to continue working this way.
3. Be Aware of Cultural Norms
Citizens of certain countries and cities are just more prone to burnout than others. Savvy Sleeper compiled a variety of studies from seven sources to determine which cities around the world are most and least prone to burnout.
Asian cities dominate the top 10, with Tokyo taking the top spot as the city with the highest risk of burnout. This is unsurprising given the intense working culture in Japan’s capital.
Meanwhile, many northern European cities like Copenhagen, Oslo and Tallinn (the city least susceptible to burnout of the 69 cities analyzed) dot the bottom of the list.
During the pandemic, the rise of decentralized workforces has spiked even more dramatically. A great manager will bear the cultural impulses of certain remote staff members in mind when allocating work and involving them in meetings.
The blog post linked to above has some excellent research on the topic. It’s highly recommended to become familiar with this data as you come to terms with the challenges of managing a remote workforce.
Wherever possible, try to schedule meetings during times when your remote staff members, especially those culturally predisposed to burnout, should be awake. Getting the right amount of sleep is absolutely essential to avoiding burnout.
If it’s in your company’s culture to have casual conversations about lifestyle issues, speak to your staff about the importance of sleep. It seems like a “soft” issue, but experts disagree.
4. Be Absolutely Clear about Priorities
During times of general uncertainty, defining priorities is something that provides some much-needed clarity to employees. This, obviously, has benefits for the company also, since you don’t want your staff focused on tasks that aren’t valuable to the organization.
Ensure that your staff knows how their daily tasks relate to company strategy. This helps make them feel part of a bigger picture and less isolated. It also helps them to know that the bosses have a plan – an objective that they are playing a critical role in realizing.
There are many tools you can use to communicate staff work schedules and priorities. Many of them are free and extremely simple to use. I recommend Trello. It’s incredibly easy to understand, it’s super flexible, and it can be integrated with many of the software tools your company is already probably using.
5. Keep Casual Conversations Going
Most people like getting along well with their colleagues. Workplace friendships and relationships are some of the most valuable we’ll make in our lives. People find things they have in common beyond reaching a certain target or rolling a project out under budget. It’s part of being a grownup, and almost everyone appreciates the experience of making friends at work.
Keeping this culture going is challenging in an environment that’s been forcibly decentralized, but it’s not impossible. Tools like Slack make it possible to create many topic-specific channels where colleagues can connect about things that remind them that they’re still humans.
Use these subject-specific channels to encourage conversations that people will have around the watercooler. They might chat about the latest hit on Netflix, exchange recipes, or be free to ask for shopping suggestions.
These “inconsequential” chats do a lot for morale in the company, and they’re even more important in an age when people feel understandably disconnected. So, make an effort to seed these chats yourself, or ask a couple of respected people in your organization to do so. Before long, you’ll find that the chats pick up a momentum of their own.
Some Final Thoughts
The scariest thing about 2020 is that 2021 doesn’t seem like it will offer much in the way of respite. Our companies will need to learn how to cope with the constraints the pandemic has forced on us. There’s no “waiting it out” anymore. It’s “adapt or die” time.
With that in mind, do everything in your power to keep your staff’s mental health in mind. Do whatever is reasonably in your power to prevent burnout. The best place to start is to acknowledge the risk and move forward from there.
Seek advice from experts, read articles like this one, and do your best to implement these suggestions.