Fighting the Fires of Burnout in COVID Times

Most of us have heard the term “burnout” used before, but did you know the incidence of burnout is rising dramatically in the times of COVID-19? Whereas a CBS News article from June reported that 51% of American workers reported burnout while working from home, this article from CNBC published just a month later reported an increase in that statistic to 69%. As burnout burns through the workforce, it’s becoming increasingly important for workers and workplace leaders to learn more about this phenomenon, especially how to identify and combat it.

Understanding Burnout

The World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon, not a medically-diagnosable illness. However, the WHO recognizes that burnout influences health status and therefore describes this “syndrome.” According to their definition, burnout results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout is characterized by decreased motivation, energy, and productivity at work. Obviously, this poses a problem for employers and employees alike, and unfortunately, the recent rise in remote work is not helping.

Flames Rising in COVID Times

This HBR article from 2018 noted that the majority of American workers work remotely at least some of the time and identified risks specific to remote workers, including burnout. The author cited this fascinating research paper, which explored the work intensification that is produced by increased flexibility in the workplace. Drawing on social exchange theory, the authors suggested that as employees are increasingly allowed flexibility by their employers, they feel increasing gratitude and an accompanying desire to reciprocate by working harder. In the times of COVID-19, there are similar dynamics at play. Those who still have work and are allowed to work remotely feel grateful for having work and fearful of losing it should they fail to perform.

Recent data shows that American workers are, in fact, working longer hours than usual, likely in response to the aforementioned pressures. Even back in March, when this article was published, studies were estimating that Americans had extended their workdays on average by about 40%, working nearly 3 hours longer than usual. In other countries, a similar trend emerged, with a handful of countries seeing workers extend their days by about 2 hours. Unfortunately, this pattern has contributed to rising rates of burnout, as described in the opening paragraph of this post. That’s no surprise. Working longer and bringing work into personal time is one of the many red flags of burnout.

Spotting Red Flags

In the age of working from home, many of us are interacting less with coworkers and managers. That places the pressure on workers to watch out for burnout in themselves instead of being able to respond to feedback from colleagues.  On the other hand, this HBR article also encourages workplace leaders to take more responsibility for their workers’ well being in the face of increasing burnout. The author suggests that leaders can help individual employees identify and respond to burnout by checking in individually outside of group meetings. Additionally, workplace leaders can contribute to a general culture that prevents burnout by encouraging workers to take care of their well being. For instance, a workplace leader who encourages employees to get enough sleep every night can actually boost productivity in the workplace while preventing burnout, as I explained in this earlier post on the science linking sleep and productivity.

In any case, all members of the workplace should be familiar with the red flags that help identify burnout, as described in this article from Forbes. First of all, you can spot burnout in yourself if you notice yourself avoiding work and procrastinating more than usual. This is an indicator of another red flag, that you’ve lost pride in your work. One way burnout manifests more obviously is in lower quality work or decreasing attendance at meetings. These behaviors also signal that an employee is feeling exhausted and overwhelmed instead of motivated to work productively. Finally, as mentioned above, when workers start to blur the lines between work time and personal time, that’s a sign of burnout.

Research conducted at the Harvard Business School found that task completion bias leads overwhelmed workers to focus on easy-to-complete tasks rather than important ones. With all the pressures of remote work combining with closed schools and limited access to childcare, parents are especially likely to invest longer hours into simple tasks like answering emails rather than find time to focus for shorter periods of time on significant, creative, productive work. Unfortunately, according to the research, while this allows workers to demonstrate some increased productivity in the short-term, it’s harmful in the long term. So, what can we do to address all these burnout symptoms and their causes?

Some Strategies to Salvage the Situation

This April article on working from home suggested a few general approaches to avoiding burnout. The first is drawing boundaries. As explored in this research paper, boundary-crossing activities facilitate our transitions between different spaces, mindsets, and activities. With an eye to that delineation of boundaries, I wrote a couple blog posts earlier that included tips to designate and organize a dedicated work space at home as well as to manage time wisely while working from home.

In addition, this article suggests improving communication between remote workers in teams in order to facilitate schedule coordination. One way teams can improve their coordination remotely is to use Pyrus’s collaborative tasks and goal-oriented communication features. Another benefit of increased communication can be increased opportunity to take breaks as needed. This article from Forbes encourages workers facing burnout to communicate their needs to coworkers and find ways to support one another in taking needed time off where possible. The importance of communication here mirrors some of what I wrote about how workplaces can begin to address the prevalence of coronavirus-related grief impacting productivity.

And as a final fun suggestion, that same Forbes article suggests picking up a new hobby as a way of preventing burnout. Finding fulfillment in your personal life can help you navigate around challenges at work, maintain healthy work-life boundaries, and stay productive within work hours.

Let me know if you’ve found yourself struggling with burnout lately and if these strategies work for you! If I don’t answer right away, I might just be in the middle of my new favorite hobby, or taking a well-needed break from my work space. I’ll be back and re-energized soon!