Even before the coronavirus pandemic, technology was blurring the lines between work and home life.
An unhealthy attachment to our mobile phones made it easy to get lured back into our work worlds when we were supposed to be on vacation, socializing with family and friends or just enjoying some downtime.
During the pandemic, millions of Canadians’ homes have also become their places of work. Among those of us in this situation, most of us were thrust into it with only a few hours or days of notice back in March and forced to adapt to the transition with little or no training in how to survive in the “new normal.” Six months later, many of us still don’t know with any certainty when we’ll be returning to our former office locations. These circumstances have their advantages, such as shorter commutes, flexible work hours and a steady paycheque, but there’s also a downside.
While work has disappeared or been reduced for some, others have seen the opposite, with work demands increasing. Sprinkle in endless video meetings, emails, social isolation and continued uncertainty and you have a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.
The World Health Organization classifies workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon characterized by mental exhaustion, prolonged stress, detachment and a decline in job performance. Not only does burnout result in lower engagement and productivity, it can also lead to higher health plan costs, increased occurrences and durations of absences and disabilities and more turnover.
Burnout can manifest as physical, emotional and behavioural changes. Recognizing the symptoms of employee burnout in a physical office environment can be difficult, but in a virtual work world it’s even more challenging. Typical behavioural changes include skipping work, starting late and leaving early, withdrawing from responsibilities and taking frustrations out on others. However, some employees don’t show any signs at all. It’s quite common for your best employees to burnout as these high achievers and perfectionists may appear to be very engaged but they are severely distressed on the inside.
So what can employers do to help prevent employee burnout during this time? Start with preventative measures that help reduce stress and alleviate social isolation. Recently, our office implemented “no meeting Fridays,” to give employees one day a week free of meetings and, hopefully, fewer interruptions. Have a virtual water-cooler chat with employees periodically just to see how they’re doing and schedule regular online coffee breaks where employees can socialize in a group. Discourage employees from working outside normal working hours — where possible, encourage employees to take paid time off and lead by example. Share open and honest communication with employees recognizing that these aren’t normal times and that we’re all coping with these challenges differently.
Look for early warning signs of burnout like changes in behaviour, which may be more easily detected during one-on-one video chats, where it’s harder to conceal facial expressions and body language. Make employees aware of available mental-health and wellness resources, such as employee assistance plans, psychology benefits and mindfulness meditation programs.
Employers can also consider investing in their employees by expanding support for programs such as internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy and other mental-health practitioners. If the organization simply doesn’t have the budget for these programs, review the existing benefits package to determine if there are any benefits with a lower employee perceived value that could be reduced or eliminated to help fund higher value mental-health resources.
Most employees who are burned out lack hope and can’t see a way out or how it can ever get better. When employees are feeling hopeless, employers want to help them see there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Just knowing things can get better and that they’re not alone is half the battle, but making them aware of available resources can set them on the road to recovery.