By Madison Hanscom, M.S.
For many who are still employed, difficult times will bring exhaustion. We are in a time when routines are being completely uprooted. Many individuals are essential workers, which means they are putting themselves and their families at risk by supporting our communities. These workers often are experiencing new responsibilities, changes in work hours, new stressors and sometimes compassion fatigue. Other individuals are now forced to work from home while juggling new responsibilities, caring for children during work hours, and suffering from guilt or tension if there is a dip in productivity.
Just because we are living in a stressful situation, this does not mean everyone will suffer from burnout. Burnout is deep and pervasive. It is marked by emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, cynicism towards others, and depleted mental resources (1). However, the conditions we are under certainly could present an opportunity to make many susceptible. Some of the main antecedents or predictors of burnout include a heavy workload, low control over work, uncertainty/ambiguity surrounding one’s role, and conflicts between roles or wearing too many hats (2).
Doesn’t this sound familiar to the obstacles we are facing during this current pandemic?
The bad news: Burnout has negative effects on everyone. It is related to turnover, lessened productivity, counterproductive work behavior, lower motivation, and negative health outcomes (3). The side effects of burnout can last a long time. Burnout in time is associated with diseases in the long term (e.g., musculoskeletal, cardiovascular) and mental health consequences such as depression, insomnia, and anxiety (4). Helping a workforce suffering from burnout is not an easy task.
The good news: Burnout does not appear overnight. It often takes time to develop. This can allow leaders to get ahead of problems, check in often, and try to mitigate the situation before it becomes a larger setback. Healthy employees are key to having a resilient workplace, and they are worth the investment of your time.
What can you do as a leader to mitigate burnout during a pandemic?
• Think about the balance between your employees’ demands and the resources they have to meet their demands. For instance, if they are now being asked to sanitize a work vehicle before and after a delivery required every half hour [demand], is there enough time and supplies for them to do this comfortably or are they racing against the clock [resources]?
• Check in with your workforce to see who is feeling stretched thin and why. The root cause might be different for individuals in varying roles, thus different attention would be needed. The best way to prevent burnout is by addressing the source and modifying where possible, not treating the symptoms after the fact. (Sometimes this is not possible, and strategies come in handy like stress reduction techniques.)
• Offer more flexibility. During times like this, employees are often wearing multiple hats. As much as possible, try and structure their work and deliverables to accommodate the possibility that life will interfere with work.
• Provide positive feedback. Let people know when they are doing a great job and tell them you know this isn’t easy. A positive remark can make all the difference and brighten someone’s day.
• Improve communication and set expectations. Your employees will want to know how things are progressing. By giving them routine updates, this allows them to feel connected to the big picture. Expectations should also be set when clarity is gained or decisions are made. For instance, if you cannot offer raises this year, communicate this immediately and be as transparent as possible, explaining the process and reasoning.
• Look into mental health resources for your employees and distribute helpful links. Many insurance plans are offering upgraded support in this time of need. There are also hotline numbers and virtual counseling options.
• Foster a climate of authenticity. This means increase situations where people can be themselves and talk openly. Model this yourself by being an authentic leader.
• Encourage employees to set boundaries, and then respect them. During a time of crisis, we often are expected to accommodate work at all hours. Even though working at all hours can feel rewarding at first, over time it can mean less recovery and can potentially lead to exhaustion. Remind employees it is ok to spend some hours offline and disconnect from work in order to rest and recuperate for longer term success.
As always, leaders should walk the talk and engage in healthy behaviors themselves. Are you integrating a new home workout routine into your schedule? Getting 8 hours of sleep a night? Setting more realistic expectations for yourself? Taking the time to video chat with a friend or loved one, even if you want to cancel? Lead by example and share your new habits with those you work with. It might inspire them to pick up new habits themselves.
A safe workplace means employees who are psychologically and physically healthy. At Propulo consulting, our focus has always been on safe production. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into leadership effectiveness during COVID-19.
Please see our other blog on burnout:
(1) Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Sanz-Vergel, A. I. (2014). Burnout and work engagement: The JD–R approach.
(2,3) Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 397-422.
(4) Salvagioni, D. A. J., Melanda, F. N., Mesas, A. E., González, A. D., Gabani, F. L., & de Andrade, S. M. (2017). Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. PloS one.