Sixteen crazy months and counting.
Many of us start each day listening to or reading about COVID-19 cases and vaccine statistics. Are they up or down? Next, we turn our attention to the status of restrictions. Can we go to a restaurant? Can we meet up with friends or have a family gathering? Can we all get back to the physical workplace? Just what can we do?
Some people are faring well. Others are not. It shouldn’t be a surprise that research studies have discovered a parallel sickness to the pandemic: Burnout. While this illness may have started as anxiety, the length of the pandemic and the daily good news and bad news has worn people down to the point of burnout. One research author referred to it as a "tsunami of employee strain."
This time, however, the burnout is different. It has struck a wider range of people, rather than those in traditionally stressful jobs.
Nurses and doctors have been struggling in an overburdened health system to keep their patients alive. Teachers face remote learning, but often without the right tools. Children at the other end of remote learning have also been stressed, while many parents have been pulling their hair out as they work from home and helping kids with schooling. Businesses have been forced to lay off workers or reduce hours, once again causing anxiety and stress.
According to Dr. Patricia Grabarek, a behavioural scientist and workplace wellness expert, today’s burnout is different because of three elements. These include emotional or physical exhaustion, a sense of disconnect from work or family and feelings of being less effective. Each feeds into the other. A rise in hate crimes during the pandemic has also been reported as another cause of significant stress.
So, what can organizational leaders do to help employees recover from this high level of burnout and pandemic fatigue. How can you help employees bounce back and rebuild resiliency? The following suggestions will help you to get back on track.
Revisit organizational purpose
Employees with a strong sense of purpose and who know how their work contributes to the organization will bounce back from stress and burnout much more quickly. Take time to revisit your organization’s mission, vision and values. Provide opportunities for brief and regular discussions on how employee work is fitting in with these elements and celebrate goal success frequently.
Make water-cooler time
Management used to be able to simply walk around and talk briefly to employees. Hybrid work schedules and remote work make communication more complex. Take time to develop a schedule to make sure you have some kind of contact with employees, be it through text, email, voicemail, phone, or virtual meetings. Take time to invite comments and discuss elements of an employee’s life other than work. Be available and show genuine interest in the well-being of employees and work hard to keep them feeling connected.
Ensure leadership empathy
While I appreciate leaders need to focus on business continuity, doing so while neglecting employee morale is just another step toward corporate-wide burnout. Employees need to feel appreciated and valued. They need to know their managers recognize the level of stress being experienced and make an effort to accommodate where possible. Ensure that all leadership programming is more "person focused" so that leaders are more self-aware of their own personal feelings while recognizing and accepting the needs of others as individuals. Employees are not simply tools to get a job done.
Recognize and appreciate
No doubt your employees are working hard, sometimes doing two or more jobs. So, show your appreciation. Reward and recognition have always been important to employee morale but especially during challenging times. Think of new unique ways to recognize employees. Have an appreciation day, recognize important milestones such as work anniversary dates or project completion. Reach deeper into personal celebrations; for instance, congratulate an employee whose son or daughter are graduating from high school.
Promote mental health resources
While many employees acknowledge personal stress, they are not accessing wellness benefits to full capacity and in some cases are not fully aware of the resources available. Recirculate informational brochures, revisit and discuss the wellness resources in weekly meetings and post information throughout your workplace. Help employees see that you take their well-being seriously.
One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is the acceptance of remote work and flexible schedules. Although created out of necessity, remote work has "worked" so well that many organizations are considering reducing their physical footprint. Today, a good number of employees prefer to work at home and/or to commute much shorter distances while applying a hybrid work schedule. Thus, work flexibility will be seen as a highly desired employee benefit. Be creative and check into new ways of working for the long term.
Creating and sustaining a strong corporate culture and employee engagement is difficult at any time, let alone during a global pandemic. That’s why managers must pay more attention to factors creating stress and burnout.
Many employees are physically exhausted. If they are working remotely, they may feel disconnected from work — while also feeling like ineffective substitute teachers for their remote-learning children.
Multiple factors are impacting the pandemic burnout phenomenon. It is the leaders’ job to focus on ensuring a healthy work culture where employees wellness is paramount and where individuals feel safe, valued, and appreciated.
Source: Recovering from a Year of Pandemic Burnout, How COVID19 increased workplace burnout and 4 ways to reverse it; Overcoming pandemic fatigue: How to reenergize organizations for the long run, McKinsey & Company, November 25, 2020.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, CCP, M.Ed. is the author of eight books, a radio personality, a speaker, an executive coach and workshop leader. She is also chairwoman of the Manitoba Status of Women. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org