Burn, Baby, Burn: How to Avoid Employee Burnout

Lockdown has led to an unprecedented rise in home working. Tracksuits and leggings, freedom from commuting, the flexibility to get household jobs done between (or even whilst on) work calls, unlimited snacks on demand………it all sounds like the perfect set-up, now magically available to junior as well as senior staff. But the reality is somewhat different and has brought its own pitfalls.

What was originally an interesting, novel short-term experience has now been extended to a year and counting. It’s an entire workplace revolution. The advantages are well-acknowledged, but burnout is a real and present danger. In a recent survey, over half of respondents said they attend work emails at the weekend and 35% use personal devices for work. The lines between the employee’s own time and the time due to their employer are no longer clear. Most tellingly, 66% said that work was spreading further outside of their contracted or expected work hours than before the Coronavirus measures. A massive two thirds in another survey claimed to be suffering burnout. The physical and mental effects of burnout are severe: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease have all been linked to burnout.

There’s loneliness too- somewhat unavoidable during lockdown- but without the social component even just of work, isolation can be quite literally a killer. Research has demonstrated that whilst drinking hits life expectancy by 30%, smoking by 50%, and obesity by 20%, loneliness has the greatest impact, reducing life expectancy by a shocking 70%. It’s a terrible thing for individuals and for society.

If you’re the employer, though, why does it matter? It is easy to look at impressive levels of employee output (great sales figures, client satisfaction, high productivity) and think that we were all wrong about working from home being an excuse to be lazy and that this high productivity can go on forever. But we have seen only one year of this so far. Burnout takes time to really dish out the damage and we are now arriving at that crunch point, recognising that this lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Not if you want healthy, functioning employees who retain enthusiasm for the job.

What can be done? In short, here are some of the best strategies.

For the Employer:

· Create company guidelines for working from home. Setting out clearly what is expected helps to avoid a drift into unhealthy working practices. Setting it out in writing sends the message that you are serious about creating balance. Of course, if you do have under-performing employees, this helps with that issue at the same time.

· Culture change. Ensure employees have scheduled breaks. Encourage an atmosphere where being available every hour of every day is not demanded.

Encourage managers to utilise flex-time to help everyone adjust to their new remote environment. Support your employees to get the best out of them.

· Encourage the use of video calls to connect. There is a powerful link between social support in the workplace and low levels of burnout among employees. According to more than one study, positive social relationships with co-workers are the most important factor in workplace happiness. Just because your team is no longer based exclusively in the office, doesn’t mean they can’t maintain friendships remotely. The onus is on them too, but consider leading friendly ‘check-ins’ or catch-ups with the whole team via video call. Ideally in the morning to prepare for the day. This can be very productive regardless of whether you’re home working or not. Let non-work chatter intrude a little bit, just as it would in real life. Zoom has become tiring for people over this year, but it still has an important function. If your team members live close to each other and the weather is suitable, suggest that they meet outside in person where lockdown rules permit.

For the Employee:

· Exercise. It can’t be said enough. At the minimum for those who are not keen gym-goers or sporty types, walk around the block before work, as if you were walking to work. As well as creating a sense of normality, it clears your head and gets oxygen to the brain!

· Dress for Work: Not necessarily every day, but banish those sloppy clothes for at least half of the week and see how it makes you feel. Better?

· Establish Boundaries: This is about getting balance back into life and allowing you to disconnect when you need to. Begin by implementing office hours, silencing notifications and activating an out-of-office response outside of pre-determined time blocks. This way, it will be clear when you are available and when it’s ‘out of office’. Try to keep these times consistent, so clients and colleagues begin to predict your availability and respect it. Stand by your new rules and don’t be pushed around.

· Open Up to Inspiration: Burnout can make you disillusioned and forgetting what drew you to the job. The chronic stress that leads to burnout changes how your brain works, overwhelming your cognitive skills (ability to think, learn, reason and stay focused) and neuroendocrine systems (which release serotonin and adrenaline). Your aim is to get out of survival mode and into a more sustainable mental state. Set aside specific time to do the parts of your job you enjoy most. Brainstorm and do creative sessions with yourself or others from time to time.

· Be Self-Aware: Nobody can help you if you can’t recognise there’s a problem. Communicate with others, especially your managers. You can’t blame them for failing to see you drowning if you gave no signals.

Of course, only so much can be done to ward off isolation if we remain physically isolated. Some will say that the only realistic path forward is to adapt to a part-homeworking life, spending at least some of your working week at an office of some kind, even if this isn’t your usual large company building. Try a smaller satellite office based in a local serviced office or co-working hubs with a limited number of other people. This offers vital social interaction in a controlled environment, as well as being practical for those with noisy children and pets at home. It’s becoming a popular option and one worth investigating.

The next time someone asks you how work is going, hopefully, the first thing to spring to mind is the work itself, not how burnt out it made you feel.

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