It was March of 2020 when the United States shut down due to the growing outbreak of COVID-19. As we enter March of 2021 and get set to mark the one-year anniversary of pandemic life, COVID burnout at work is a real issue. For employees who have been working (and parenting and teaching and socializing) from home for a full year now, pandemic-related burnout at work is something that more employees than ever are dealing with.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), three things characterize workplace burnout. These are “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy”. This definition was coined in 2019 and after a year of working through COVID, this phenomenon has become incredibly common.
As a leader, it is up to you to help your employees navigate COVID burnout as we (hopefully) enter the final stages of the pandemic. Work should start to get back to some semblance of normal in 2021 so now is the time to start re-engaging your Zoom-fatigued team members. Here are a few helpful tips on how you can actively engage employees amid COVID burnout.
Be optimistic — with a grain of salt
As mentioned above, “feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job” are a major symptom of workplace burnout. In 2021, it is even easier than usual for these feelings to take hold and fester when employees are isolated at home. It is important for leaders to be optimistic to help employees fight these feelings but you have to do it in the right way.
Leaders should practice what is called “bounded optimism” with their teams. This means communicating optimism to employees but in a realistic way that is grounded in the reality of the situation. Unrealistic optimism can have negative long-term effects on morale. Helping employees understand that things will get better but maybe not as fast or in the exact way they want is key to providing real, sustainable hope and positivity.
It’s a sprint, not a marathon
Leaders often think in yearly, bi-yearly, or even in five-year terms. This helps everyone prioritize the big picture and long-term goals over the everyday grind. In the COVID era, this type of long-term thinking is not currently as effective as it once was, especially when dealing with burnout. Shortening alignment, planning, and feedback cycles can help avoid burnout as well as help leaders catch and deal with burnout earlier.
The organizations that have best dealt with COVID, in general, have been the most agile. They have flexed and pivoted on the fly to adapt to rapidly changing internal and external forces. Shortening your usual cycles helps with this. Instead of yearly planning, plan on a quarterly basis. Instead of quarterly alignment, check-in and align with team members weekly. Communicating and soliciting feedback is more critical than ever in engaging team members too and you can do this daily.
Don’t engage them at all
One of the major causes of COVID burnout is the fact that working from home blurs the distinction between home and the office, and leaves precious little time for employees to truly unplug. Even fun, social, corporate culture-building events like virtual team building or happy hours can feel like more work at this point in the pandemic. Additionally, traveling for vacations has become almost non-existent and pandemic-related economic and job-security anxiety are leading to employees taking less time off. This all adds up to employees constantly feeling like they are on the clock which leads to burnout.
Leaders need to encourage — and maybe even require, demand, or force — employees to take time off to unplug and recharge their batteries. This may require giving employees assurances that their workload or job security won’t be compromised by taking time off. This takes buy-in from the top down and an organizational commitment to prioritizing real time off for employees. The payoff should be employees that come back re-engaged and ready to tackle the challenges ahead.
Take care of yourself first
Being a leader in your organization does not make you immune to COVID burnout. The pandemic has taken a toll on all of our mental health in the last year and even if you are responsible for helping others get through burnout at work, you may need to deal with it yourself as well.
This means honestly evaluating how you are feeling toward work and assessing whether you are displaying signs of COVID burnout. If you are, you need to ask for help from other leaders in your organization. If no one fits this bill, you may want to consider seeking help from outside the company. Making sure you are actively engaged as a leader is the first step to helping other employees do the same.