COVID Has Added Unprecedented Stress to Workers — Here’s How Managers Can Protect Their Team from Burnout

covid has added stress to workers

Ingrid Kessler & Louie Martinez

Quartet Chief People Strategy Officer & Quartet Associate People Operations Director

May 18, 2020

Imagine for a moment that you are a manager under the best of circumstances — you manage a high performing team in a mission-driven business that is thriving. Goals are always met, praise for your team’s work is abundant, and your team seems engaged and happy based on the smiles and high-fives all around you each day. Now take the same high performing team and add a less ideal set of circumstances — an economic downturn, unprecedented personal demands, and tremendous uncertainty. To add even more complexity, you are now managing this team remotely. In the best of times, it is important for managers to look for signs of burnout in their team — fatigue, irritability, illness, and more. In harder times, it is critical.

What is burnout?

Burnout often occurs when an individual’s desire to succeed overrides their personal well-being. Work and life become imbalanced and in many cases, personal sacrifices from health to relationships are made. High performing team members often put the weight of the team, the company, and even your success as a manager on their own shoulders. In some situations, this comes from immense external pressure from a board, company leadership team, manager or peers. In other situations, high performing team members put this pressure on themselves. It is harder to recognize pressure building from within a strong employee, especially when there is a large disconnect with a company that promotes and truly values wellness and work-life balance.

Pressure can come from a company’s culture, from a manager, or from within

From a company’s culture

High performing team members want to please everyone, and shudder at the idea of saying no, asking for an extension, or seeming unable to handle anything and everything asked of them at all times. When this pressure comes from the company, it is your role as a manager to serve as a shield. Practice saying no on behalf of your team. If you can’t say no, advocate for realistic deadlines, help the team make trade-offs and re-prioritize work to accommodate new requests. Burnout undermines engagement. In times of external pressure on your team, be a sounding board for support, share the burden, and model balanced behavior. Even if you are operating within a broader company culture that puts work first at all costs, you can create a microculture on your own team that empowers people to put their health and wellness first, provides a safe place to make mistakes, and maintains a realistic view of workloads. By recognizing the impact each individual makes instead of rewarding heroics at all costs, you can protect your team and allow them to thrive.

From a manager

In a balanced environment, where vacation is encouraged, parenthood and relationships outside of work are celebrated, sick days are unlimited, and mental health is prioritized, burnout still occurs. In these cases, you may inadvertently be creating unnecessary pressure as a manager despite the company not requiring it, or your employees may be putting extraordinary demands on themselves. If you send emails at all hours, reward team members working through illness, ask your team to turnaround work between 5 pm and 9 am, or expect perfection at all times, you may be contributing to an environment that causes burnout. Be mindful of your own tendencies and go out of your way to ask your team for feedback or to flag for you when you are requiring more from them than they can manage.

From within

Internal pressure that employees place on themselves can be hard to identify early, and requires regular 1:1 check-ins to look for warning signs. Internal pressure often comes from an innate sense of responsibility, drive and determination. Success can provide momentum and encourage more effort for more success. Pressure can also come from a fear of failure or a constant striving for perfection. While it is hard to ask high performing employees to do less, take a break, or pull back, it is important to do so to protect them from burnout and care for their health and wellness. Without burnout, high performing employees can innovate, grow and contribute meaningfully for years to come. Employees who recognize your ability to protect them from burnout are likely to feel grateful and loyal to you as a manager.

Additional considerations exist with distributed teams

When employees are in a different physical location from their manager, they may feel compelled to work harder to prove they are productive. In some cases, remote employees are made to feel they must be even more productive when working from home in order to continue this privilege. In other cases, remote employees put this pressure on themselves to make up for the lack of face-time and transparency that comes from sitting next to colleagues (especially those new to being remote).

Circumstances surrounding COVID-19 increased the likelihood of burnout on your team

Employees are currently unable to take restful vacations on distant beaches or visit family and friends who bring them respite and joy. Even though employees would benefit from taking a break and staying local, they are hesitant to take any time off at all when so many jobs are on the line and unemployment is so high. Employees who are self-isolating alone and working from their homes lack boundaries that normally exist between work and personal time because every activity is now occurring at the same kitchen table. Further still, employees who are feeling anxious, are throwing themselves into work at all hours of the day as a distraction from the events going on in the world around them.

Recognizing burnout

In this time of remote work and distributed teams, warning signs of burnout may be less obvious. Individual check-ins are one way to get a better understanding of how people are doing when you can’t see them.

Before an employee reaches the point of burnout, look for these warning signs:

  • Never saying no to a new task or assignment
  • Sending emails or text messages at all hours
  • Personal life absent or put on hold
  • Sleeplessness
  • Stops exercising
  • Unclear how to prioritize; easily overwhelmed
  • Unable to move forward, feeling stuck or experiencing writer’s block
  • Unable to navigate past complexity

As an employee experiences more pervasive or severe burnout, more signs appear:

  • Lack of flexibility
  • Low tolerance for ambiguity
  • Comments regarding being burnt out made in passing, or said with sarcasm (these “jokes” should be taken seriously)
  • Irritability, frustration, snapping, or being short with colleagues
  • Personal hygiene neglected
  • Sudden or drastic drop in performance; decreased productivity or quality of work
  • Sick days on Mondays or getting sick more frequently than usual
  • Seeming disengaged

Responding to burnout

The best response you can have when your team is burnt out is to encourage time off. Encouraging employees to take time off, and drawing attention to the benefit of time away, can raise awareness and provide the permission your employees are waiting for. Taking time off is necessary, even if that means staying home and catching up on hobbies. Talking about it openly in meetings, or modeling the behavior yourself by taking time away, also reduced stigma.

Sometimes people can’t predict when they will need to use mental health days. Allow people to take time off for mental health the same as you would for physical health. If someone came down with a stomach flu or migraine midday, you may tell them to take the afternoon off. If someone reaches a point of true burnout and cannot be productive for the rest of the day, they may need that same consideration.

Other ways to help employees who are burning out include helping your team prioritize what’s important and say no or “not now” to tasks that can wait and to help your team protect their private time and maintain balance. Proactively tell employees when a project can wait until Monday or that you don’t expect an email response until the next workday if you happen to think of and send a question after work hours.

If you believe an employee is in need of additional support, beyond what you feel you can provide, remind them of mental health resources provided by your company. Resources through a company typically ensure complete anonymity and privacy but people still worry about using them. Show your support and reassure them that resources are provided to be used.

Caring for yourself

In addition to caring for your team, you need to also care for yourself. Take the learnings from here to look inward as well. Being a manager during this time is no easy feat. Managers should be mindful of the early signs of burnout for themselves and make sure they take the time they need to decompress. If you don’t recharge, you are likely to become depleted with nothing left to give to your team. Protecting yourself helps you protect your team and your company.

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