The pandemic has turned the world, and certainly work, upside down. Companies are reporting a worrying upturn in burnout as remote employees grapple with juggling kids, unmanageable workloads and concerns about job security, let alone the future of humanity. In short, these are unprecedented times marked by higher stress and poorer mental health.
Before the pandemic, burnout rates were already distressingly high—in a 2018 Gallup 1 survey of 7,500 full-time employees, nearly two-thirds said they experienced burnout. Now, with many employees continuing to work remotely, companies are under pressure to identify burnout, reduce its impact and develop new ways to support their employees’ wellness.
So, what is burnout?
Burnout results from chronic job stress that won’t go away. It leads to emotional and physical exhaustion (a lack of concentration, even small tasks seem arduous), suffering job performance (feeling incompetent, operating subpar), negativity or cynicism (towards colleagues or clients), and detachment or depersonalization (switching off or a sense of helplessness.)
"When we’re in burnout, we usually retreat. We shut down like a wilting flower," says Virginie Baggen 2, who gives executive coaching and mental resilience training in Amsterdam. Symptoms might include working harder, feeling the need to prove yourself, panicking, and notably, ignoring your body’s signals, she explains.
“We forget mind and body are connected—we ignore the signs and just push until we break.”
Workload isn’t the only thing contributing to burnout. Control, reward, fairness, community and values also play a role. This could mean having unrealistic expectations about yourself (or your boss does), strained relationships or being in a dead-end job that doesn’t match your values.
Burnout shows up in other areas of our lives, too, such as depression and anxiety, withdrawal or conflict in non-work relationships (spouses, friends, kids, etc.), a lack of focus, forgetfulness, irritability, repeated illness and a glass-half-empty outlook.
The red flags aren’t always obvious, though. As workplace expert Jennifer Moss puts it in an interview 3, "An employee tends to experience small ebbs and flows of stress and then suddenly, a cliff."
I’m not working at home, I’m living at work!
For decades, there were calls for greater job flexibility and working remotely, but COVID forced the issue. Organizations with little experience had to quickly develop or expand remote working arrangements, and employees also had to adapt. A study4 from Kennesaw State University found that telecommuting was a new experience for 60% of respondents (white collar workers).
The shift towards virtual work was thought to increase productivity and improve work-life balance, but many have found it tough just logging off. Tales of endless video conferences, getting zoomed out 5 and longer days aren’t merely anecdotal. A National Bureau of Economic Research survey 6 of more than 3 million people found the average workday has lengthened by 48.5 minutes.
Burnout has been increasing as work moves online. According to a Monster.com survey 7 over two thirds (69%) of American employees say they are experiencing burnout symptoms working from home—an increase of 20% from a similar survey in May. Similarly, the anonymous workplace chat app Blind surveyed 3,921 users 8 from tech companies in February and found that 61% of employees claimed they were burned out—by May, the number rose by 12%.
Some sectors are disproportionately impacted, and healthcare professionals are one of the most susceptible groups when it comes to burnout. One study 9 found that 74% of medical residents experience burnout. The pandemic is exacerbating this. Not only are they putting in longer shifts, they are also dealing with the very sick and dying and the fear of potentially bringing the virus home.
Cultivating connection and other managerial solutions
The responsibility for burnout lies in the workplace, according to the World Health Organization 10. The company (employers, managers and supervisors) should take responsibility and not the employee.
Christina Maslach, one of the leading researchers in the field and who works at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says the burned-out worker often thinks they are the problem 11. “The bottom line is…that it is a social phenomenon, not an individual weakness.”
A 2018 Gallup survey 1 of 7,500 employees bears her out. It found burnout is strongly influenced by how employees are managed.
So how can companies offer supportive management when many of their staff work remotely? Baggen says it comes down to “fostering a culture that isn’t only focused on discussing outcomes, and performance, but one that incorporates the touchy-feely elements of how people deal with life. This means asking, ‘How are you? How are you coping at home? How is the workload?’ And it has to be genuine and on an on-going basis.”
Stella Pennekamp 11, a Stress & Career coach at Orange Expats, says it’s important to create safety by cultivating connection. “People tend to be purely functional when communicating virtually at work. Empathic leadership means being genuinely curious about others and connecting.”
She continues that managers can help employees feel physically, mentally and emotionally safe “by being clear about job expectations, goals and anything the company expects. They can do it by literally asking, ‘What do you need to feel safe?’”
Baggen emphasizes change must come from the top. “If you want to discuss something you’re uncomfortable with but your boss never does, you won’t either. Managers need to be committed to engaging with staff about their lives.” This means welcoming questions and concerns, sharing emotions and enacting the changes they would like to see. For example, if they don’t want employees to overwork, they have to log off, too.
What are the other ways companies can help? Many are introducing stress-reducing measures such as expanding mental health and counseling services, including access to counseling apps, such as Calm, Talkspace and ThinkUp. Others are creating pandemic peer groups or teams, such as Dell 12, where 1,500 workers joined together to discuss childcare or loneliness. This supported workplace bonding as employees can’t gather around a physical water cooler to chat.
Many businesses are encouraging staff to take time off, or offering additional vacation days so they can relax. There’s also a new focus into shifting workloads and being more flexible 13, both with hours and deadlines, so people have greater sense of control over how they spend their workday.
Individual coping strategies
While prevention is the best course of action, there are also things you can do personally to cope, or recommend (if you’re a manger) to employees when checking in on them.Coping starts by accepting you’re experiencing symptoms and taking it seriously. “It all starts with self-awareness,” says Baggen, who suggests taking steps to reassess and reframe how you approach life.
Pennekamp encourages taking time off throughout the day to recharge away from job responsibilities. “Avoid back-to-back meetings. Restructure your days to do more of what brings you energy. Give yourself the space to take care of yourself.”
Both advise examining your lifestyle, such as sleep, physical exercise and diet (are you eating junk food; using too many medications?). Not getting enough sleep is one of the main risk factors 14 for developing burnout. While you might be hampered by less in-person interaction, and social distancing, try to find support—there are dozens of free apps to help you stay connected, including QuarantineChat, for those really stuck at home.
Also, learn to relax. This could mean doing meditation, listening to music, playing with your pets or taking walks in nature. Get away from your computer and move because exercise helps reduce stress.
The only way to turn things around is by doing what makes you feel good, and prioritizing self-care.
Dara Colwell is a freelance journalist, content editor, and writing instructor with 20 years’ experience writing about culture, the environment, politics, relationships, and the arts. She teaches professional writing and storytelling techniques at the University of Groningen, where she has developed the curriculum for several classes. She seeks to provide insightful content with an observant eye.
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