Katharina Cavano l Palladium - Aug 12 2020
This Isn't Business as Usual: Recognising Employee Burnout during COVID-19

Photo Credit: Charles Deluvio

According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is “a special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and a loss of personal identity.” A recent Gallup study showed that 21 percent of full-time employees reported feeling burnt out at work ‘very often’ and that an additional 76 percent report feeling burnt out ‘sometimes.’

No one is immune to the emotional strain of burnout, but in the midst of a global pandemic, when many non-essential workers are working remotely with little to no separation from work and home life, the risk of burnout only increases. Gallup’s findings also show that burnout risk significantly increases the more hours employees work, and when employees have more flexibility – to work from home or remotely – they tend to increase their work hours.

Common symptoms of burnout include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased feelings of negativism, and reduced professional efficacy – all things that can easily remain hidden behind a computer screen from afar.

Without the face-to-face interactions and in-person engagement managers usually rely on to gauge employee morale and well-being, burnout has become all the more difficult for managers to recognise in their teams.

According to Christina Shim, head of Palladium’s Commercial Innovation Practice, the challenge is to avoid thinking of the current situation as business-as-usual.

“It’s crucial to continue checking in with teams on a regular basis – not just about work,” she advises. “It’s easy to think of this as the new norm given that so many of us have been living in quarantine for six months. But this is not business-as-usual.”

For much of the population, the crisis has meant not just juggling a full-time job from home, but also providing schooling for children or caretaking for elderly relatives.

Shim emphasises the importance of understanding that the risk of burnout at this time goes beyond the stressors of work. “Many are struggling, especially those who are worried about their children, childcare options, and school. And many employers are no longer addressing this as they did in the beginning.”

Addressing and alleviating employee burnout

Ignored or unaddressed burnout in employees can have significant consequences on their life and well-being both at work and at home, and can contribute to excessive stress, fatigue, and insomnia – all of which are linked to weakening immune systems and vulnerability to illness.

At a time when stress and anxiety levels are already at an all-time high, managers and organisations have an increased obligation to help avoid burnout in their employees.

“I’ve shared openly with the team the struggles I’m going through on my own,” says Shim. “This encourages them to speak up as well. Several have written me separately, sharing that they were grateful for the open lines of communication.”

Providing an open line of communication for staff to reach out if they need to is important, but so is recognising when a team member may be struggling and proactively taking time to meet with them to discuss how to help. Shim adds, “There are no right answers in terms of how to help – but acknowledgement, listening, and maintaining an open dialogue help immensely so that staff feel heard.”

Finally, Shim recommends encouraging taking time off and leading by example from the top down.

“This is critical for mental well-being. I have taken time off myself, even if it’s a day off here and there, to disconnect and rejuvenate. I’ve noticed the team doing the same once I started doing so. If people don’t take that time, the blurring between work and personal time becomes increasingly non-existent and it’s only a matter of time before it affects their productivity and in turn, the business.”

For organisations as a whole, Shim reminds leaders that companies are made up of people who need to be seen and heard. “Palladium is in the business of creating positive impact across the globe but it’s difficult for any company to have an impact if their staff are affected and unable to be productive,” she says. “Acknowledge this, encourage frank conversations, implement flexible work policies where possible, and inculcate a culture of adaptability and empathy for long-term success.”

Maintaining a business-as-usual attitude during a global pandemic isn’t a sustainable option for organisations. Leaders who recognise that now is the time to flex with the circumstances, and provide more support for their teams, are more likely to retain happier, more productive employees, which is better for business overall.

Contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com to learn more.