In 2019, the World Health Organization placed burnout in its International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual and classified it as an occupational hazard. From massive stress-related losses in North America ranging between $120 to $300 billion; to European countries revealing high burnout rates among health professionals and educators; to Chinese media reporting that about 600,000 Chinese citizens a year die from working too hard; to Australia reporting $34 billion spent on burnout incidents. And then COVID-19 happened. Everything we thought we knew about workplace engagement and stress management vanished. In its place, leaders now struggle with managing remote teams, developing widely different strategies for disrupted marketplaces, and dealing with uncertain economics.
Ironically, the commonly stated desire to have some flexibility to work on occasion from home has been smashed. Employees are feeling more burnout than they did prior to COVID-19. Lines are blurred between work time and home time. Output to prove productivity has skyrocketed, leaving employees exhausted and tense. A feeling of being estranged from the organization and team members results in loneliness. Job uncertainty haunts many dreams.
The process of moving from burnout into the breakthrough that allows employees to recharge and handle these emotions can be greatly aided by a wise, compassionate manager who employs these practices:
- Be a clear communicator about expectations and accountabilities. Step back to ask team members where these expectations are unrealistic or need to be broken down into smaller achievable goals. Are resources needed? Are some of the “normal” workplace systems now outdated? Now is the time to streamline and adapt.
- Be human. From children at home to caring for an aging parent, everyone’s world is very different now. Ask each team member what constraints they have and when are the best worktimes. Share that information. Without creating Zoom overload, bring all team members together — as much as possible — to check in on a personal level FIRST, not a productive level.
- Avoid too much email. Have people talk in real time with each other with the leader as a facilitator.
- Beware of micromanaging. Let people know you trust them and that working 12 hours a day is not expected unless there is some emergency.
- Express appreciation. There’s no need to wait until some project is completed 100%. Say thank you along the way. Let employees know the difference their work is making for the team, the customers and the business.
- Help employees create work/life boundaries. Even before COVID-19, The Boston Consulting Group had a standard practice that NO email was to be answered on the weekend.
- Create a best-practice free-for-all. In a virtual gathering, encourage everyone to share something that is working for them (personal or professional) in this new world of work. Have a way of celebrating each report.
- Encourage and support physical activity through the workday. Getting away from the desk and computer is essential for well-being. Prioritize time off. Ask each team member how they are doing with this.
- Provide ongoing virtual training in resiliency skills, mindfulness, communication and technology (if the latter is needed).
- Laugh! Laughter is the shortest distance between people. When we laugh together, we bond. We create a community. Whether sharing funny memes, videos, whatever — allow people to laugh.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. The single thread that consistently runs through these actions is that a leader has empathy, a keen ability to listen deeply, a desire to help their team grow and flourish amid disruptive times. The leader acknowledges their own journey and insights in moving from burnout to breakthrough. In these strange days, the burnout flame will burn again. But with practice, it will no longer be a massive bonfire but rather a spark from a match.
McDargh, Eileen, Leadership Insights for Moving from Burnout to Breakthrough, “Great Leadership” blog (December 10, 2020)