Continued stress has long been an impediment to a healthy workplace, especially when it leads to burnout — increased mental detachment from the job and reduced effectiveness. In a 2019 Robert Half survey of managers in the United States, a staggering 96% said their employees experience burnout to some extent. And in a related poll, 91% of U.S. workers themselves reported feeling at least somewhat burned out.
And then came COVID-19.
The anxiety and uncertainty associated with the ongoing pandemic is now further gnawing away at mental well-being for many managers and employees. New stressors for home-based workers often include larger workloads due to leaner staffing, not being able to interact with colleagues in person and the challenge of caring for children or elders during the workday.
In a 2020 global study by Qualtrics, SAP and Mind Share Partners, 66% of employees polled reported higher levels of stress since the outbreak. More than 75% feel more socially isolated than they did before the outbreak.
Managers play a crucial role in determining how well their organizations navigate this crisis and reducing threats to employee wellness in general. It’s clear there’s work to be done. Almost 40% of employees in the Qualtrics study say their company has not even asked them if they are doing OK.
Here are some suggestions to help you. They include input from Nic Marks, statistician, well-being expert and founder of Friday Pulse.
Approach well-being and mental health thoughtfully
Mental health has for too long been a taboo topic in the workplace. Part of this is because, for some, mental health denotes mental illness. And, as Marks puts it, “No one wants to be seen as a problem to be ‘fixed.’”
Another reason mental health isn’t often broached at work is that employers just haven’t seen it as their responsibility or concern. They haven’t realized why employee well-being should be important to them.
The COVID-19 economy and remote work have upped the ante today, however. Managers who promote healthy discussions around employee well-being and offer a willing ear to staff who are having a hard time dealing with the new frustrations and stresses can help employees avoid the burnout that is often a result. By being empathetic, you can persuade employees to come forward and share their stories about what they are going through on the job. Increasing your understanding of issues that are affecting them can lead you toward possible solutions. Many managers have recently shown a willingness to share their own stories despite worries from some that this could make them appear vulnerable. The payoff is high, however, because, feeling the support and empathy, more employees allow themselves to open up.
What should be of particular concern to employers is that your best people may be those most susceptible to burnout. “It is clear that burnout especially occurs in people who are engaged in their work,” Marks says. “They are willing to go the extra mile and, in doing so, actually go an extra hundred miles and totally overload themselves. People who don’t care about their work just don’t put in that extra discretionary effort that would tip them over the edge.”
Communicate 2-3 times more often
Many businesses are prioritizing employee mental health and well-being programs because of the pandemic. In a Robert Half survey, 45% of managers polled in the United States said their company has started offering mental health resources, and 49% say they now have general wellness programs in response to COVID-19.
Many of these programs are not a cure-all, though, according to Marks. “Many employee well-being programs are more opportunities for self-care, such as mindfulness courses or counseling help lines. These are helpful, and companies are right to pursue them, but many people under pressure don’t have the time to commit to such self-care initiatives.” That’s where the support of their managers comes in. Talking regularly with your team is your most powerful tool for reducing stress and burnout. Effective communication has always been a key management skill, but it’s a pivotal responsibility when employees are no longer physically together in a central location. A good rule of thumb is to talk one-on-one or to small groups of employees 2-3 times more than you would in an office.
Marks says, “At Friday Pulse, we recommend organizations systematically ask every employee how they are feeling as often as every week,” Marks adds. “Doing this across the whole business ensures that there are fewer poorly managed teams as the scores show up quickly and senior leaders can step in to offer targeted support where it most needed.”
When talking with your team, try to listen carefully to get an authentic sense of how they are feeling and coping with new stressors — a limit on socializing with others, fewer outlets for rest and relaxation, and virtual schooling, for example. Stress can also come from your staff seeing friends and family members being laid off, which can easily lead to feelings of job insecurity of their own.
You may have to communicate virtually, of course. Use video calls whenever feasible. It’s surprisingly therapeutic for team members to see each other talking, strategizing, smiling and laughing when so many of us are isolated.
Quick 15-minute group check-in calls on a weekly basis that are separate from scheduled business meetings are something staff are likely to look forward to. But don’t crowd too many people into these calls. “If these meetings include more than four or five people, the more introverted will not feel able to share,” Marks notes. Too many people on a call can also encourage side conversations that are distracting and confusing.
Give them workload relief
“Our data shows that work-life balance has deteriorated significantly across our client base,” Marks says. “Before the pandemic, the average score on our 0-100 scale was 72, but it has recently dropped to 67. And these work-life balance scores have remained suppressed since March. This suggests that this is an ongoing issue with new ways of working rather than a temporary setback.”
Work-life imbalances often reflect increased stress — and even burnout. In a recent survey by Robert Half, 34 percent of workers said they are more burned out at work than a year ago. Of those respondents, 30% pointed to a fuller plate as the top reason for rising fatigue levels. This beat out even the inability to separate work and personal life when working remotely (19%) and fewer resources and smaller budgets (14%). Employers polled agreed even more strongly: Staff members managing heavy workloads and on the brink of burnout was the top concern of 47% of senior managers when asked about retention challenges.
People having too much work to get through the day is at least partly the result of staff cuts companies have had to make because of the pandemic’s economic effects. Even if you are not in a position to hire additional workers at this point, you can take some of the pressure off your employees by bringing in skilled temporary professionals to help out in the most bottlenecked areas.
You can also give your team more flexibility by suggesting windowed working. This simply means allowing them to break down their workday into smaller units of time, or “windows,” separated by personal breaks. Most of these units are likely to be taken during normal working hours, but some can occur before or after them depending on an employee’s personal preference.
In addition, encouraging staff to take the time off they’ve earned, even at a time when vacation travel is very limited, can allow them to simply take it easy for a while, the ultimate remedy for stress and burnout.
How managers can supplement wellness programs
- Understand that your involvement is critical.
- Schedule brief video calls with your team on a weekly basis just to see how people are dealing with new work arrangements and other pressures.
- Brainstorm ideas for reducing stress and burnout.
- Be empathetic: How is your team feeling and coping with new stressors?
- Also hold frequent one-on-one calls with team members.
- Bring in skilled temporary professionals to relieve bottlenecks.
- Suggest windowed working.
- Encourage your team to take earned time off.
Your efforts to create a workplace conducive to mental well-being will not only benefit your employees but also your business. By doing so, Marks estimates companies can yield a 5-fold return on investment. “The catch,” he says, “is you have to invest time and effort, not just money.”