Burnout season: 5 ways to improve employee mental health

With nearly half of workers saying they’re burned out, it’s more important than ever that they take time away from the office.
Workerburnout Panel

It’s been two years since the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon, and it should come as little surprise that after surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, 44% of workers say they are more burned out on the job today compared to a year ago. Younger workers are feeling it most, but it’s high among all age groups.

According to the latest research from staffing firm Robert Half, that number is up 10% compared to a similar 2020 poll. Nearly half of employees experiencing increased fatigue (49%) blame it on a heavier workload.

“After enduring more than a year of long hours and little time off, many workers are feeling burned out and need a break to relax and refresh,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. “Running on empty can have a negative effect on employees’ mental health and well-being, and managers should make it a priority to encourage their teams to enjoy a well-deserved vacation.”

How well-deserved is it? Nearly one in four workers forfeited paid time off in 2020, which has certainly exacerbated the burnout problem. However, workers plan to make up for it as one in three plans to take more than three weeks of vacation time this year. How refreshing those vacations are, however, remains to be seen.

According to the Robert Half research, 57% of workers are ready for an “awaycation” to travel and completely disconnect from work; in comparison, 32% prefer a staycation, and only 11% favor a “workcation” or a vacation that combines work and leisure. But unplugging could prove difficult for 28% of employees, who admit they’ll be checking in with work frequently when they take time off this summer.

“Managers can foster a vacation-friendly culture by taking time off themselves and disconnecting as much as possible when they do,” McDonald advises. “Planning for staff absences — including bringing in contract professionals — can also help ease people’s anxiety about missing work, minimize disruptions, and ensure continued productivity.”

But burnout isn’t the only problem. The anxiety and uncertainty associated with the ongoing pandemic is still gnawing away at employees’ sense of wellness — even as people are getting vaccinated and the economy edges toward recovery.

Beyond heavier workloads, stressors for workers, be they remote or in-office, often include not being able to interact with colleagues like they used to, toxic work environments, caring for children or elders during the workday, and the general uncertainty about work and the economy as the state of the pandemic fluctuates in many cities and states.

Managers play a crucial role in determining how well their organizations navigate this crisis, and in reducing threats to employee well-being in general. Here are some suggestions to help, which include input from Nic Marks, statistician, well-being expert, and founder of Friday Pulse, an app for tracking employee happiness in the workplace.

1. Approach employee mental health thoughtfully

One 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 switch to remote work upped the ante, however. Managers who have promoted healthy discussions around employee mental health and offered a willing ear to staff who are having a hard time dealing with the frustrations and stresses have helped employees avoid the burnout that is often a result.

By being empathetic, you can persuade employees to share their stories about what they’re going through on the job. Savvy managers have 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 such support and empathy makes more employees feel free to open up — paving the way for management to create solutions before bigger problems arise.

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.”

2. Communicate two to three times more often

Many businesses are prioritizing employee mental health and well-being programs because of the pandemic. 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 potential burnout. Effective communication has always been a key management skill, but it’s a pivotal responsibility when employees are no longer all physically together in a central location. A good rule of thumb is to talk one-on-one or to small groups of employees two to three 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. 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.”

3. Provide the right forum — and listen attentively

When talking with your team, listen carefully to get an authentic sense of how they’re feeling and coping with their stressors — fewer outlets for rest and relaxation, for example. Stress can also come from your staff having seen 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 on 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.

4. Give them workload relief

“Our data shows that work-life balance has deteriorated significantly across our client base [since the start of the pandemic],” Marks says. Work-life imbalances often reflect increased stress. 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’re not in a position to hire additional workers at this point, you can relieve some of the pressure by bringing in skilled contract professionals to help out in the most bottlenecked areas.

You can also give remote employees more flexibility by suggesting windowed working. This simply means allowing them to break up their workday with breaks to take care of personal responsibilities, from laundry to child care. Even just knowing that they’re not chained to their computers from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and can step away when needed can be a huge mental relief — and even more so when they need to take a windowed break to go grocery shopping. Bonus: When they get back, they’ll likely be fresh and refocused.

5. Give them time off

Nothing helps reduce stress and stave off burnout like time off — completely off. And not having enough of it in the past year has played a significant role in chronic stress and burnout among workers.

Encouraging staff to take the time off they’ve earned can allow them to simply take it easy for a while, even if they don’t take a full-fledged vacation and just want time to relax at home. And discourage them from checking in with work — they should feel free to be completely unplugged from the office.

Your efforts to create a workplace conducive to good employee mental health will not only benefit your employees but also your business. By doing so, Marks estimates companies can yield a five-fold return on investment. “The catch,” he says, “is you have to invest time and effort, not just money.”

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