Extinguishing burnout: As stress mounts, employers can help

Amy Weitzel

More than a year into the pandemic, more and more teams battle another effect of COVID-19: burnout. 

Even before the pandemic, burnout had reached record levels. The World Health Organization included burnout in its classification of diseases in 2019, describing it as “a syndrome … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Add to chronic workplace stress issues related to the pandemic — among them working from home, managing children and schooling, political polariation and social unrest — and burnout reached critical mass.

For too long, burnout has been seen as an employee issue and the onus placed squarely on the shoulders of employees with such solutions as mindfulness, meditation and self-care to build resiliency. While these are fantastic tools and employees should be responsible for their own health, burnout also should be seen as an organizational problem requiring solutions at the organizational level.

One study identified six main causes of burnout: unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, lack of a supportive community, unfairness and mismatched values and skills.

Here’s where human resources and leaders can make a real difference in the personal and professional lives of their employees. Upstream measures put in place by leadership can have real and measurable downstream effects.

Adjust workloads: Unsustainable workloads was the most-cited reason for burnout and decreased well-being. Work hours are blurred because people work from home; additional meetings have increased the work day an average of 48 minutes and child-care issues require flextime. Now emails are coming through at all times of the day and night. Leaders can help manage workloads by checking in with employees to make sure loads are manageable. Set boundaries on when emails are sent. Use the delay function in Outlook to send emails during a certain time if you’re working later at night to respect the traditional workday.

Control and flexibility: Give employees flexibility when possible so they can exert control over their hours to accomodate children’s schedules and bandwidth issues. This increases job satisfaction and productivity. As managers, set clear expectations on what deliverables look like. Establish metrics and deadlines and then follow up. Constant meetings remove autonomy from employees, but clear expectations provide autonomy on how jobs get done. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Does this really need to be a meeting? Complete a meeting audit to see if the meetings you’re conducting are necessary. The goal is to avoid pulling employees away from completing actual work as well as decreasing their screen time if meetings are via Zoom. If a meeting is required, follow an agenda to keep people on track. Consider a consent agenda to reduce time spent on in-meeting discussion when items can be reviewed ahead of time.

Sense of purpose: Help employees see how they fit into the bigger picture of the organization’s mission and vision. What is the “why” behind what they do? What gives them passion in their jobs? Can they be assigned a special project that reignites their passion? Burnout at times requires some time to take a breath and at other times to move forward with a sense of purpose and reconnection with the mission and team. It’s possible with good communication to do both when you have an outward-focused mindset of wanting to support your team.

Check in on employees: Leaders and human resources should check in regularly with employees to prevent a slow burn from becoming a conflagration. Fires can smolder while employees toil away day after day, focus on work and home issues and miss the early signs stress is building. Cultivating a culture of checking in peer to peer or within teams promotes awareness before flames take hold. Wellness plans can help build resiliency. Training programs can help with mindfulness, resilience and stress management techniques. Of course, an employee assistance program is always a great resource for organizational and employee support for burnout and other issues.

The most important support requires vulnerability and boldness — the ability of leaders to sit with employees and talk and listen about their mental health. There’s no better time to normalize talking about mental health at work.