Seven Ways to Dampen the Flames of Burnout
Are we pushing ourselves to the brink of burnout? Fretting over financial uncertainties and wondering whether the job we hold today will be cut tomorrow. Working like mad fools to prove we’re “keeper” talent. Stick-handling overwhelming workloads, thanks to others’ layoffs or furloughs. Thanks to hyper-intensified customer expectations. Thanks to a relentless health crisis. Toss in work from home (WFH) pressures. Add domestic responsibilities into the mix. And we’re looking at a recipe of epic high-anxiety proportions.
It seems a lot of people are talking about it. But few seem to be dealing with it. Possibly because we’re all caught up in its flames.
Burnout happens when we face stresses one after the other, daily, over weeks and months. It leaves casualties emotionally and physically spent. Irritable and short-fused. Unproductive, depressed and withdrawn. Prior to Covid-19, this chronic exhaustion was estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion dollars a year, with lost productivity amounting to about 550 million workdays, according to Harvard Business Review.
As the contagion persists, technology information resource Nextgov cautions that a May 2020 survey of 7,000 American professionals revealed 73% of respondents reported feeling burned-out. No separation between work and home, unmanageable workloads, and worries over job security were the most commonly cited reasons. Monster’s work-from-home survey, reported by CNBC, echoed similar sentiments with over two-thirds, or 69% of respondents experiencing burnout symptoms.
With no end to the remote work model in sight, the time to take action on behalf of stressed-out employees, and ourselves, is now.
Seven keys to preventing burnout
Mental health experts point to several common themes recommended for preventing and dealing with burnout. Take a page from their book and put these seven tips into practice:
1. Communicate and clarify priorities. Burnout is fueled by tackling a workload without knowing what takes precedence. Curtail stress by reminding everyone to set realistic expectations. For managers that means clarifying priorities and checking in regularly to make sure workloads are humane and manageable. For employees that means being comfortable enough to say to the boss there’s a lot going on and help is needed to prioritize the most important work.
2. Establish routines. Everyone working from home needs daily rituals to help gear up for the work-day and wind-down at day’s end, a place where they can routinely work, and defined hours they routinely keep.
Specific hours may be something requested by team leaders who want to be able to monitor employees over a prescribed period of time (to work an 8-hour day, online, anywhere between 7am and 6pm for instance). Other leaders may take a more flexible approach and give individuals the freedom to set a routine that fits best with their personal and professional demands as long as deadlines and quality levels are met.
Whatever the tactic, everyone needs to be asked to set up and share their routine work schedule with their immediate boss, team members, business associates, and any other people they interact with regularly (household members included). Routine creates a sense of certainty which helps to dampen the stressors and burnout associated with these unpredictable times.
As Carol Cochran, VP of people & culture at FlexJobs observes: Flexible scheduling for employees can have a dramatic impact on reducing burnout, since rigid work schedules usually magnify conflict between work and family, leading workers to mental exhaustion. Encourage managers to adopt a flexible schedule with their team members so that each individual is better able to control their days.
3. Establish and broadcast communication windows. When lost deep in thought or working on time-sensitive deliverables, the last thing anyone wants is to be interrupted. Have everybody tell their immediate manager and coworkers what times they’ll routinely respond to emails, SMS or voice messages and be available for quick conversations. Personal control over time and interruption is a powerful stress management tool.
4. Create and stick to healthy work/life boundaries. This is critical when it comes to staving off burnout particularly under a WFH model where time and place can blur. Lead the charge. Make it clear that no person should be available all the time. No one. Period. Develop a healthy organization-wide understanding and executive-led expectation that people need to recharge – and that means turning off computers and notepads and smartphones outside of routine work hours. Our ears and eyes (and very peace of mind) need a break from all those notification whistles, rings and pings.
5. Explore and apply different concepts of downtime. When it comes to making good use of our personal time, what worked when we were commuting to bustling work environments may not apply today. Davida Ginter, author of Burning Out Won’t Get You There: Cultivating Well-being to Successfully Lead Social Change recommends people reflect on their new realities and introduce complementary activities into their daily mix, whether that’s stillness versus movement or something creative versus something methodical or analytical. Encourage managers and their teams to create a sense of enjoyment and rejuvenation by doing something personally rewarding, like:
- Adding more time to physically workout and to socialize as a counterbalance to the sedentary nature of excessive screen time and the human disconnect or sense of isolation that comes with WFH
- Formally scheduling activities into personal time with something specific to do such as picking up new (or resurrecting old) hobbies, taking a hike, working on a puzzle
6. Lead, support and participate in burnout-buster outreach. Burnout can ignite into a full-blown mental health crisis if not confronted head-on. A July 2020 MetLife study cited by Forbes found that many workers underestimate the seriousness of their struggles with burnout. While only 30% of employees said “they feel burned-out” at work, 64% reported feeling the symptoms of burnout as defined by the World Health Organization. Take stock of your mental-health programs pre-pandemic. Consider promoting virtual options such as meditation, yoga, and cardio sessions to help employees manage stress while on the job. Sites like Boomerang offer a host of free, real-person-led activities to create “community built on connection”. Give people the tools and permission for virtual water cooler chats. Encourage managers to send out personal texts or emails to their teams talking about the flick they watched the other night or the crazy antics of their pet. Experts tell us people get a lot of supportive stress release from these casual conversations. Monthly recipe swaps or Zoom cooking sessions can be a fun people-connecting burnout-buster too, while subtly drawing attention to the importance of nutritional, healthful eating (paramount during times of stress).
7. Acknowledge and allow space for frustrations and impatience. Help press the reset button. Active listening tools can get the ball rolling and keep the momentum going. Promote the need for everyone to be open and willing to listen to colleagues, managers, family members and friends. We’ll all feel more connected and supported when we hold space for each other with empathy and non-judgment.
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