Preventing Staff Burnout During COVID-19

Preventing Staff Burnout During COVID-19

The anxiety and ever-changing landscape of life during COVID-19 has meant the risk of workplace burnout has never been higher.

Burnout is not a new challenge for business but against the backdrop of the pandemic, there are increasing challenges that can lead employees to feel overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted.

Restoring the balance and protecting the mental health of your team requires the implementation of strategies to manage changing work routines and to help build resilience.

Burnout carries significant health risks for individuals as well as teams. The costs are high and include plummeting productivity, decreased job satisfaction, and absenteeism.

Pre-pandemic Australian statistics showed that 92 per cent of serious mental health concerns could be attributed to work-related stressors, and poor psychological conditions cost businesses around $10.9 billion per year, including $4.7 billion in absenteeism and $146 million in compensation claims.

Burnout is characterised by signs of high emotional exhaustion, feelings of negativity or cynicism about one’s job, and a low sense of personal accomplishment from work.

Key causes of burnout prior to the current health crisis included an unmanageable workload, lack of clarity in an employee’s role, not enough communication or support from a manager, and unrealistic time pressures.

COVID-19 disruptions have compounded these daily stressors with the addition of wide-spread uncertainty, workplace changes, and the challenge of balancing work obligations with the competing demands of family, isolation, and health concerns.

A recent Monash University study tracking the mental health effects of the current pandemic has indicated a rise in anxiety and depression in Australians. Preliminary results indicated that a majority of the 1,200 survey participants registered mild levels of anxiety and depression, while around 30 per cent of people showed moderate to high levels.

The crisis caused by COVID-19 has disrupted daily life and work routines and tackling the potential for burnout is the responsibility of both organisations and employees. Reducing and mitigating the effect of work-related stress is everyone’s responsibility and requires employers to ensure their staff feel supported, consulted, and heard.

Here are some burnout prevention strategies to build resilience within your team:

Ensure regular one-on-one communication:

One-on-one meetings are important during the pandemic because they allow leaders to check-in on how each employee is coping and, if necessary, share resources or offer assistance to support them.

Team leaders need to be trained to manage these conversations, assist teams to adapt to changes in work practice and recognise signs of stress.

Ongoing communication with employees:

  • Demonstrates that you care; ensure you focus on their needs and start every conversation with the simple question: “How are you? I want to check in on you.”
  • Facilitates a better understanding of an employee’s unique circumstances and wellbeing while ensuring they have the resources and skills to meet the expectations of their role.
  • Enables managers to identify critical issues before they lead to a problem like burnout.
  • Fosters a culture of trust and feedback.
  • Provides an opportunity to acknowledge the challenges of each employee’s situation and encourages solutions for managing time pressures or workload issues.
  • Allows time for managers to reassure and motivate employees.
  • Offers opportunities for the exchange of information on wellness and support programs.

Maintain social connections within your team:

Staying connected with your staff may reduce stress levels and help them feel less isolated. For some individuals, the challenges of social distancing and working from home may elicit feelings of detachment and isolation from colleagues. Consistent and considered communication may lessen the impact of this on performance engagement.

For maximum benefit, communication practices should be tailored as a one-size-fits-all approach will not meet the needs of individual team members.

Maintain social connections within teams by:

  • Scheduling regular catch ups among managers and staff and encouraging employees to share their experiences.
  • Using messaging or social media apps to facilitate the flow of non-work-related communication.
  • Hosting a virtual happy hour, coffee, or lunch break, with everyone bringing their beverage or food of choice to a video chat.
  • Encouraging team members to schedule 15 minute-walk and talk sessions and one-on-one phone meetings.
  • Establishing a routine for sharing information on digital platforms so people don’t drown in a mass of information, this could include a virtual shared collection of recipes and healthy lifestyle tips.
  • Setting up a “virtual water cooler” where people can engage with their colleagues in non-work-related conversations.

Encourage healthy practices and boundaries:

Remote working blurs the line between home and work life which can result in staff taking fewer breaks and finding it hard to ‘turn-off’. The juggle of competing commitments can quickly lead to emotional exhaustion and mental fatigue. Brainstorming wellbeing ideas with your team and role-modelling self-care may support a reduction in stress levels.

To this end, it may be helpful to offer staff a resource library of handy ‘how-to’ tips for managing stress and work-related challenges during the current health crisis.

Tips to encourage self-care:

  • Provide employees with practical tips on how to psychologically detach from their work such as “Away From Keyboard” (AFK) time or provide a system to structure in daily micro-breaks.
  • If working from home allow flexible options such as meetings to be scheduled only between the hours of 10.30 am to 2 pm.
  • Encourage healthy routines and discourage overworking, set the example by role-modelling a balance between work and home.
  • Encourage positive ‘connection’ between members of your team through sharing ‘lessons learned’ in navigating workload and overwork.
  • Encourage and support physical activity throughout the workday by providing resources and access to online health and wellness seminars, apps or offer streaming workouts, mindfulness or cooking classes.
  • Give employees some control and autonomy over their work by trusting them to manage their time and workload effectively.
  • Make sure everyone on your team enjoys small wins each week and ensure these successes are recognised and celebrated.
  • Develop online training modules to empower employees, this could include units on ‘working from home’ or ‘stress management’.

Supporting and creating a culture to help employees to prioritise their own health and wellness will make them feel better, stay healthier, and manage their mental health as we navigate our way through this crisis.

Resources and further reading

Black Dog Institute: Managers, here’s how to support your staff during COVID-19

BBC: How to avoid burnout amid a pandemic

Mental Health Commission of NSW: Mental health and the coronavirus, support services

Lifehacker: Avoid Work Burnout With These Science-Based Tips

HRD: Are employees burnt out from COVID-19?