By Tracy Tsai, ACC, CPC – Leadership and Career Coach
While burnout has been a problem for a long time, the Covid-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on this issue. According to a global survey by Catalyst, 92% of workers say they are experiencing burnout, defined as “the physical and psychological exhaustion that comes from prolonged stress with negative consequences, including mental distance from one’s job and feelings of professional inefficacy.”
Navigating work on top of personal challenges during a pandemic has increased stress levels to a point where many are unable to cope. And the pandemic is taking an even bigger toll on women. With remote schooling, unreliable day care, and the blurring of lines between work and home, women are working longer hours than ever before, increasing the likelihood of burnout. Women have also been disproportionately impacted by job losses during the pandemic compared to men, further widening the gender gap.
And yet, despite this added stress and exhaustion, women leaders continue to do the extra work to support their teams, consistently doing more to promote employee well-being and provide employees with emotional support, compared to men at the same level. It’s no wonder then, that the burnout gap between women and men managers nearly doubled in 2021, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report.
So what can we, as leaders and as individuals, do to reduce and prevent burnout at both the organizational and personal level?
In recent years, many companies have increased their focus on employee well-being, but addressing burnout goes beyond yoga classes and gym memberships. It’s important for organizations to be aware of the root causes of burnout and to create environments that contribute to resiliency.
Remote work has many benefits, but some employees find it difficult to navigate this new environment, especially if it was not previously the norm. Without a discussion or guidelines on best practices for remote work, employees may form unhealthy working habits that contribute to stress, and eventually burnout. As technology makes our work accessible at any place and any time, it’s often unclear to employees where the boundaries are between work and home, and what the expectations are for “around-the-clock” availability.
While managers are in the best position to address burnout directly with their team members, senior leadership should establish new working norms and empower managers to uphold these norms with their individual teams. In the McKinsey study, only one in five employees said their company has communicated expectations around responding to non-urgent requests outside of traditional work hours, and only one in three have received guidance around blocking off personal time on their calendars. Even more important than setting these norms is for managers to model them by refraining from sending emails late at night and disconnecting from technology for periods of time each day. By establishing and reinforcing work norms like these, companies can create guardrails that help employees establish healthier work habits and avoid the stress of being “always on.”
It’s important to raise awareness amongst senior leadership that burnout is an issue with a real business impact, and that managers on the front lines play a crucial role. When managers support employee well-being, employees are 25% more likely to be happy at work. However, managers who are responsible for the well-being of their team members may also be experiencing burnout themselves. Support from the top, as well as training and resources, can help equip managers to be part of the solution.
Examples of training topics for managers could be how to actively monitor employees for signs of burnout, how to be an ally, and how to take advantage of available wellness resources. In a virtual environment, it’s also important for companies to invest in training on managing inclusive teams remotely.
Investment in a company’s leaders can have ripple effects across the entire organization.
During the pandemic, many organizations have had to do more with fewer people, which creates a scenario that is ripe for employee burnout. With the awareness that burnout is more likely to occur when demands are high and resources are scarce, managers should be thoughtful about how to reallocate or adjust job responsibilities in a way that is realistic and achievable for employees.
The McKinsey study notes that a majority of employees say that their manager doesn’t help them shift priorities and deadlines or check in on their well-being on a consistent basis. This suggests that managers can do more to help, including checking in with team members on a more regular basis, with clear intent to assess their well being. For example, managers can have an open and honest discussion about whether the employee’s current workload is achievable, and if not, be willing to be flexible and make changes. One way to do this more explicitly is to ask employees to rate their level of stress on a scale of 1 to 10, rather than a general “How’s it going?”. This creates more clarity for the manager and opens up opportunities for a more candid and productive dialogue.
By making sure the right people are in the right positions with the appropriate resources, managers can set up their team members for success and help stem the tide of burnout before it begins.
Compared to men at similar levels, women leaders are consistently doing more to promote employee well-being (e.g., checking in on team members, helping to manage workloads, and providing support for those navigating work/life challenges). Women managers are also up to twice as likely to spend substantial time on efforts outside of their formal job responsibilities, such as advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and taking allyship actions such as mentoring and sponsoring.
However, relatively few companies are formally recognizing employees for this pivotal work. While two-thirds of companies have instructed managers to check in with employees about their workload and well-being, these efforts are generally not incorporated in formal evaluations or performance reviews. Without accountability and formal recognition, this critical work could be at risk of being considered “office housework,” or that which contributes to the business but doesn’t typically lead to advancement or compensation.
While it’s important to express general appreciation for the value that these managers bring to the company, formally recognizing their work in performance reviews can go a long way. It not only shows the company’s commitment to this important work, but also its desire to retain those managers who are stepping up to lead at this critical time.
Employees behave in accordance with an organization’s culture, so it’s important for managers to model the working norms that the organization, or the team, has established around self-care. For example, we know that the ability for employees to take time off is critical to their well-being. But 16% of workers haven’t taken any time off during the pandemic, while 14% have taken less time off than they did before. Leaders can model healthy boundaries by taking time off themselves, and by encouraging their direct reports to do the same. If a team member consistently avoids taking time off, this could be an opportunity for managers to explore issues that might be preventing them from doing so.
Another way managers can help employees with burnout is to remove the stigma of asking for help. Some employees may not even be aware certain resources exist. Managers who use the company’s wellness resources, such as mental health or childcare benefits, can help normalize this by sharing stories about how these resources have helped them. By modeling the behaviors they hope to see in their team members, managers can prevent burnout in themselves and help establish a healthier working culture.
Employees at all levels of the firm can help prevent burnout by first recognizing the signs and taking steps to mitigate it. Researcher Christina Maslach identifies three components to watch out for:
Identifying and monitoring what triggers stress can help individuals deal with it effectively. Seeking professional help or building a support network can provide a safe environment to discuss and ask for help. At work, talk to your manager or a mentor if you have difficulty managing your time, are hesitant to take paid time off (PTO) or need help setting boundaries.
Most importantly, individuals need to make time for self-care. We recommend intentionally carving out technology-free time for activities such as meditation, exercise and making connections with friends and family. It’s also important to prioritize sleep, eating well, and drinking plenty of water. While these may seem quite basic, these habits affect our mental, emotional and physical well-being and are essential to our overall health.
Over the past year, many companies have made strides in their commitment to employee well-being, including offering support for caregivers, providing mental health benefits, and adding more PTO days. While these steps have helped, burnout continues to be its own pandemic, especially among women. Establishing new, healthier working norms and investing in managers will be critical. Individuals can also identify and mitigate burnout in themselves before it escalates. Taking these steps increases the odds that employees have the support and resources they need to remain engaged, healthy and productive.