COVID-19 caused a record drop in employment in 2020 that continues to spill into 2021. Though a large number of Americans lost their jobs across the country, millions more worked steadily to keep the economy and essential businesses afloat. Now, the same employees who have been praised for their sacrifice throughout the pandemic are experiencing exhaustion on a different level. Employers are enlisting the help of organizations to navigate the new found land of post-pandemic employment and prioritize rest and recovery for this class of workers.
Janet Tyler has made a career teaching early-stage, start-up and mid-sized businesses how to manage stress and mitigate burnout in their workplaces. As President of True Depth, a consulting and managing firm specializing in these areas, Tyler is leading the change and advocating for healthy employees.
“Burnout [occurs] essentially after long periods of sustained stress [when] challenges begin to feel insurmountable,” said Tyler. “What happens is we all feel stress, it’s healthy. It is temporary pressure because you have some adverse situations happening on the job. Unfortunately, what happened during the pandemic is people were extremely stressed out and didn’t have the time or opportunity, but maybe companies were leaning on employees a little too much during the pandemic that created this high stress situation.”
In 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout as an occupational phenomenon. Not to be confused with exhaustion caused by life, burnout is a term exclusively coined for exhaustion due to the workplace. As defined by WHO, burnout is: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.
Once employees begin to experience burnout, it may come in waves affecting multiple employees at once. Burnout is a contributor to high turnover rates, resulting in jobs losing key workers during a time when they are needed most. Companies looking to avoid employee burnout must examine areas that could be eliminated to help relieve pressure from the day-to-day operations.
“Try to reduce excessive collaboration. For companies who are in-person during the pandemic, it may be easy to hop in a meeting. Now, people don’t have five minutes, they are so over-scheduled throughout the day,” said Tyler. “In this new world with hybrid [working modes] and many [of them] are remote, it is tiring. Really looking brutally at the scheduling, limiting, cutting unnecessary meetings and resisting the temptation to overwork your star employees [is key].”
As the pandemic has put a tight strain on many essential functions, more than one year since its discovery in the United States, there seems to be no end in sight. Communities are adapting to COVID-19, but some employers are behind on the curve.
“I’m seeing what I like to call a ‘high burnout culture.’ There are some things that companies could be doing, but there are things that the employees could be doing to mitigate burnout,” said Tyler.
Employees experiencing burnout must create healthy boundaries to manage stress while being able to maintain job functions. According to Tyler, the time is takes to recover from a burnout increases the amount of time symptoms are felt.
“It takes at least half as long to recover from burnout as how long it took you to become burned out. If you’ve been not resting after stressful work events, not giving yourself a break … for six months, it will take you at least three months to recover from that burnout episode,” says Tyler.
Another contributing factor in burnout during the pandemic is race, diversity and inclusion. Examples of brutal slayings and racial tension across the country televised on the news and published in print laid the foundation for another layer of stress and burnout in the workplace. Now, corporations are working overtime to ensure a racially sensitive and inclusive culture for all. This too could lead to burnout.
“When you are always feeling compromised or under the radar, if you’re constantly feeling in the minority, your brain, the load of that, can be exhausting,” said Tyler. “I’m not comparing and it’s not the same, but it would be like a woman working with a team of all men all the time or a Black person who worked with all white people all the time.”
Now, more than ever, companies are beginning to have conversations around burnout and implementing practices to protect their employees. The pandemic has afforded an opportunity for companies to shift the way the corporate work day is executed. They just need to take advantage of that opportunity.