Employees are working two extra hours per day since going remote for COVID-19. We’re busier, more stressed, and emotionally exhausted than ever before. All this stress is wreaking havoc on our productivity, and leading to COVID burnout.
There are six main sources of burnout:
- Work overload
- Lack of control
- Insufficient reward
- Breakdown of community
- Absence of fairness
- Value conflict
According to Venture Capitalist Tomasz Tunguz, work overload, lack of control, and the breakdown of community are particularly potent today as we battle longer hours, a raging pandemic, and Zoom-mediated human contact.
Given this trend, we’ve organized a list of recommendations for companies to help prevent employee burnout based around these three factors.
1. How to prevent work overload
Start by measuring how burned out employees are today. This can inform how much effort to throw at the problem and offer a benchmark to help determine whether future interventions are working.
Tunguz recommends two burnout assessments:
1. A short employee burnout questionnaire in Reversing Burnout: How to rekindle your passion for your work from the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
2. The UWES (Utrecht Work Engagement Scale), which measures job satisfaction and motivation, takes between five and 10 minutes to complete.
In May, nearly 40% of workers said that no one at their company had inquired about their mental wellness since the start of the pandemic. Workers who hadn’t been checked in on were nearly 40% more likely to report declines in mental health since going remote.
At Clockwise, we send regular employee pulse surveys to better understand how each team, department, and the company as a whole are doing.
“Our students normally have a summer break and this year we got one too (one week),” said Cynthia McGillis, Project Manager at Lambda School. “It was to acknowledge how burned out everyone was getting from WFH and also the political strife with the protests.” SF-based tech startup Lob also recently gave their workers the day off to decompress.
Of course, time off isn’t as relaxing if workers are having to cram the same amount of work in less time. It’s not a bad idea, if your assessments indicate severe burnout, to let employees know that it’s okay and their jobs are safe if they’re less productive than usual.
Another way to prevent overload is to offer extra mental health and well-being benefits. In one survey, just over half of employers said they’d recently done this. These benefits often include subsidies for online counseling, meditation classes, fitness classes. You can also provide workers with apps to help with meditation, mental health, and sleep such as Daylight, Modern Health, Plum Village's Zen Meditation app, Sleepio, Thriving Mind, and Wellbeats.
2. How to empower workers
When I asked people how they’re unplugging from work in the evenings and weekends, people frequently mentioned continuing to commute, sticking to a schedule, and using rituals. To prevent burnout, empower employees to implement these habits.
For example, physically changing locations promotes work/life balance by telling our brains that it’s time to switch modes between work and home. Empowering workers to set their working hours and respecting those hours when scheduling meetings, sending messages, and setting deadlines empowers employees to “commute” to and from work rather than being in work mode all the time. Daily rituals also signal to the brain that work time is over. Walks, closing laptops, working, and running errands are all great ways to get away from your screen for a bit after work. If you must stay on the computer, switching to your personal laptop can help signal to your brain that it's time to stop working.
Management should communicate to staff that they’re not only allowed to, but also encouraged to turn off notifications after a certain time each night. Or to put their laptop in a desk drawer when they’re done for the day like reporters Laura J. Nelson and Christopher Mims.
Companies should adopt tools which make it extremely easy to communicate your working hours to your team and remind them when you are and aren’t available. For example, Clockwise Slack sync shows your status next to your name based on your calendar so colleagues always know whether you’re available, in Focus Time, or in a meeting. It’s great for OOO and after hours, especially if teammates are in different timezones.
3. How to support community-building
A full 75% of workers say they’ve become more socially isolated, and nearly a third of employees have had zero informal contact with their team, since the start of the pandemic.
A support network of friends and family can help workers thrive during trauma and improve our ability to respond to stress. Socially isolated workers are 19% more likely to report declining mental health.
Facilitating employee socialization is essential to preventing burnout. At Clockwise, we connect over something that isn’t work on Tuesday evenings, often trivia, Drawful, or other online games. Employees’ kids are invited as well. We’ve also recently implemented Donut, a Slack app that pairs employees randomly for “coffee chats.”
In October, we hosted a socially distanced, masked, outdoor pumpkin carving contest.
Lob hosts interest-based video chat rooms during their regular virtual happy hours. Activities include escape room shenanigans, wine tastings, and watercolor painting classes. The company covers any costs to participate, sending workers a set of paints, a cheeseboard, or bottles of white and red wine.
One last way to facilitate community is through having managers regularly check in with their teams about their burnout levels and work/life balance. In addition, leadership should regularly update workers about their plans and resources available to workers. For example, the University of Washington holds weekly Zoom “town halls” about COVID and sends out regular emails about the evolving situation and the wide range of concerns workers might have. “I think that they have handled it well,” University of Washington employee Mike told me. “Their efforts have been solid and consistent.”
Helping employees establish and maintain a healthy work/life balance is something every company can do. Steps include:
- Measuring your current levels of burnout
- Easing up on expectations around productivity
- Offering workers some time off
- Stepping up your offerings around mental health and overall wellness
- Empowering and encouraging workers to clearly delineate and defend their work and leisure hours
- Facilitating community building by planning and sponsoring online and masked, outdoor, socially distanced opportunities for workers to socialize
While WFH and a global pandemic will never be easy, these tips should help companies come out of these challenges stronger than ever.