Employee burnout in the time of COVID-19
“I’m thinking of moving on.”
Those five words are what made us pay attention to the issue of burnout. They came from an employee who started with us a couple years ago: a top performer and extremely valued team member.
At first blush, the news was a surprise. There wasn’t anything wrong with the company or team fit, but instead a feeling of isolation, lack of control, and deficiency in career development. At Minim, we’re pretty ahead on these dimensions, but the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has made us think we aren’t as prepared for what might come.
During that day we huddled about, diagnosing the problem. What happened, what caused it? It was a textbook case of burnout—there was some outreach to the employee to talk through it, and we fortunately reached a good outcome. Some changes in routine, a strongly suggested vacation, and seeking help from the team was able to restore the balance.
It’s worth saying that the hard part started after the resolution—the effort needs to be sustained.
The resolution kicked off a conversation with our senior leadership team about the more general situation. Burnout has the potential to affect all of our employees. What is even less reassuring is that the situation could be even worse.
Burnout is a real issue, and we aren't the only company affected
The Google Trends for “occupational burnout” are disturbing. And it's no wonder. Perhaps put best by a Bloomberg headline: Three Hours Longer, the Pandemic Workday Has Obliterated Work Life Balance. The article cites that NordVPN is clocking an extra 3 hours of the U.S. workday in the age of COVID-19, and a survey of US employees (N=1,001) that stated 45% of workers were feeling burned out.
If our experience is any guide, other companies should get ahead too. A tsunami of “people issues”—ranging from simple productivity declines, loss of morale, and general attrition—is nothing compared to the potential mental health issues that can stack up. Humans are not meant to be wired in all the time, and we need to get ahead of this.
We’ve all heard about burnout. You can’t sprint through a marathon, and working in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic is no different. We are all working under strange circumstances with different social routines and coping mechanisms.
What’s difficult is how quickly this pandemic came about and how many of our tools that we use to combat burnout did not contemplate a fully remote workforce. You cannot gauge mood as well remotely, and there is less informal conversation time to detect these issues. This is what first made us brainstorm ways of detecting the early signs of burnout.
Detecting burnout in the remote workplace
The symptoms of burnout were common in a several ways. Some symptoms we observed from ourselves, our employees, and our community are:
- Change in mood
- Change in productivity (up or down)
- Resorting to a voice-only option on video meetings
- Change in punctuality or timeliness
Once you see the symptoms of burnout—whether it’s your manager or someone in HR—you have to act and get ahead of it. The tools we have to combat burnout are:
- Talking about it
- Varying work assignments and collaborations
- Time off / vacation
- Encouraging mindfulness and increased social contact
- Creating career momentum and networks
We can see the line between burnout and depression presented as a fuzzy continuum. In our discussion playing this forward over the summer and the fall, this topic became the big issue we were concerned about. Many summer vacations were cancelled and were replaced with more work. We all have to make sure that our employees have a balance of work and play, regardless of where it is.
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” [Amara’s Law]
The work here is just beginning. The initial steps have been taken, but it takes many weeks and months to show the impact. As reopening plans in the fall look more like a long-term rolling opening, we need to fundamentally change how we operate.
- Address it. This type of burnout has the potential to become one of the most profound HR issues that we can face. Recruiting and networking have become challenging but it’s nothing compared to the overall burnout impacts. Talking about it is the beginning of making a difference.
- Measure it, manage it. We need to develop a stronger screening tool so that we can measure and manage burnout. While we can ask everyone to take a real week of vacation off, the one-size-fits-all won’t work. There’s more work for us to do here.
- Talk about it. Encourage more casual networking within and between companies. The opportunity of us all remote has lead to new ways that we can interact. At Minim, we've tried an app called Donut, which allows for Minimers to have an informal “donut” or coffee with each other. As we think of how to scale and make this better, we’re thinking on how to do this across different organizations.
There’s a lot to do here. Burnout is a productivity suck, an employee churn source, and an insidious morale destroyer. Left unchecked, it becomes a debilitating mental health issue. We must take better care of our employees to stay ahead of it.
- 3 Tips to Avoid WFH Burnout, Harvard Business Review
- COVID-19-driven Work-From-Home Burnout is Real, Tech Republic
- How Burnout is Affecting Work-From-Home Productivity During COVID-19, Intuit