How to Promote Employee Well-Being and Avoid Burnout
Remote working has brought benefits to employees and employers alike. For employees, it has reduced or eliminated the dreaded commute. It has given them more autonomy and flexibility during the day, and enabled them to get more done in less time because they’re interrupted less often.
For employers, it has meant - among other things - that the potential employment pool has grown, and they haven’t had to “keep the lights on” all the time, which has cut their utility costs. Not only that, but teleconferencing has shrunk the need for large travel and lodging budgets.
But there has been an added cost to all of this, one that still is to be calculated, the total of which we may not know for many years. It’s the human cost that has come from the added stress that many have experienced because their work has been remote.
How can employees and employers both gain and lose on something that has so many obvious benefits?
It has happened because the boundaries between work and leisure are more blurred at home than they are in the office.
Employees nowadays expect “hybrid work” to be available. They expect that they will be able to choose when they’ll come to the office, and when they’ll work from home. But because most people don’t have spare rooms to work from. The space they use for leisure has become a shared space that they also use for work.
And therein lies the problem. For one thing, there’s a tendency to ignore work/life balance. Companies generally don’t offer any guidance on how to do this, especially when working from a remote location. There’s no supervisor who, on his way out the door, notices that you’re still working and can tell you to go home. You’re already home, and he can’t see what time you decide to quit for the night. As a result, your employees are probably working longer hours than they should. Doing so threatens their well-being and can lead to burnout.
The other thing is that it’s easy to shift from work to non-work and back again. A click of the mouse is all it takes. The more often it’s done, the harder it is to distinguish between work and leisure.
Switching back and forth also affects well-being by disrupting concentration and making people feel dissatisfied with their lives. It’s why they’re warned to limit their time on social media sites.
Remote working offers tremendous benefits if it’s handled in the right way, but for many it isn’t. And that’s for a lot of reasons.
For one thing, people may not be able to have the privacy they need to do their work. They can’t discuss confidential issues easily over the phone because a spouse or child is within earshot.
Or it may be too noisy. Information-based jobs can require immense concentration, and things such as children and pets can interfere with that especially when the weather prevents you from going outside or even working from the summer house.
Remote working has also put more pressure on frontline workers, and this has spilled over into other sectors of the economy. Almost no one has been left untouched by these changes in the workplace.
That means that leaders and managers must help the people in their organisations to get through this crisis as a matter urgency. Other things must be set aside, and this made their first priority.
People are looking to you for leadership that will help them during these difficult times. If you do this right, then you’ll foster more loyalty and engagement. You must also help others who feel inadequate, are fearful, and anxious. There’s no easy way to do this.
Remote working has given some people negative feelings about work, and that’s because their workload has increased. This is due in part to the fact that many people have gotten sick, and also because others have changed jobs. This has meant that they’ve had less time for rest and relaxation. Not only that, but because they’re separated from the colleagues and don’t get as much feedback (verbal or non-verbal), it’s easy for them to feel that their work is unimportant.
Today, the vast majority of managers are concerned about the well-being of their staff. Apart from the empathy they feel for their personal suffering, they’re also concerned about diminishing productivity. Although employees generally get more done when they work from home, widespread illness can mean that a relative few number of them have to shoulder the workload by themselves. This inhibits their ability to cope with what would be considered the normal stresses of life and productivity at work.
Leaders in any crisis must show more compassion. Instead of telling people that “we’re all in this together,” and then acting as if nothing has changed, they need to demonstrate that they’re genuinely compassionate about the needs of others.
Caring leaders know how to calm the collective panic that so easily overcomes the vast majority of people in a crisis, and as a leader you have a responsibility to make a positive difference in their lives. It also shows what you’re made of: whether you’re all talk or not.
Social distancing has had a negative effect on well-being.
Human beings need physical contact, whether it’s a warm embrace, a high-five or pat on the back. All of these and many more are legitimate forms of touch, and human beings need them. The absence of them - which is inevitable with social distancing - is something called touch starvation or touch deprivation. It causes them to want to, but to refrain because they’re afraid they’ll be infected.
Touch deprivation is known to increase stress, anxiety and depression and can interfere with people’s ability to sleep. It makes all physical ailments worse and increases cortisol which is linked to increase heart rates, higher blood pressure, muscle tension, and a suppressed immune system. In other words, social distancing can decrease employee well-being. It also means that burned out employees can’t get help from their organisation because many of the tools that would normally be used to help them have been withdrawn. If you live alone as well as work alone, then you’re already susceptible to this phenomenon.
In America, nearly one-quarter of its employees are depressed. This should concern you because depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In other words, it’s a silent pandemic.
Depression has a lot of causes, but it can come from prolonged feelings of helplessness and can lead to something that’s much more dangerous: hopelessness.
Those with mental health issues are twice as likely to experience unmet needs for safety, food, employment, education, and transportation.
Lockdowns and quarantines also increase feelings of isolation. People are social animals and need regular contact with others that exceeds the limitations of teleconferencing.
Burnout comes from working too much, too many hours, for too many days in a row. Those who suffer from it feel that they need to work all the time.
Many people throw themselves into their work to distract themselves from the pain in their lives, though doing so can make matters even worse. Nearly half of Americans self-identify as workaholics, which means that the British probably aren’t far behind.
It must be remembered that burnout isn’t the fault of the burned out, and they must never be made to feel ashamed if it happens to them. It doesn’t happen because they failed.
In fact, it should never happen to them because their organisations shouldn’t let it. They should never reward the degree of effort that leads to it, nor should those people have to work that hard in order to succeed under your management.
How to avoid burnout
Burnout can be avoided by taking a few simple steps.
The first is to stop trying to control everything. Doing so will stifle creativity and innovation. You’ll make everyone feel like a rabbit surrounded by headlights. Give people the autonomy and the flexibility that remote working affords them.
The second thing is to regularly check on your people to make sure that they are resting properly.
When everyone is in the office together, it’s easier to spot those who are “burning the midnight oil.” Most people, however, have inadequate lighting for their teleconference calls, and so things like dark circles under their eyes, etc., can be easily hidden. And unless the meeting moderator insists that everyone turns on their camera, you won’t be able to see who’s yawning, and who isn’t.
It’s not enough to ask how people are doing. You also need to find out how they’re spending their free time. Remember, burnout is cause by overwork.
You may need to reassess the number of hours that constitute a workweek. One source claims that the ideal number of hours to work in a week is 38, but that is contingent on the type of work. Most people would find it difficult to do cognitively demanding work of high quality for more than 20 hours per week, and the optimum number is probably less than that.
And speaking of rest, the third thing is that everyone in the organisation from the very top to the absolute bottom of the chart needs to learn how to go on holiday. It’s a lost art.
Holidays without work
Everyone needs to learn how to go on holiday without work. That means no checking in with the office, no reading or responding to company emails or taking phone business phone calls. You shouldn’t do it, nor should you allow those you supervise to do so either. Going on holiday means that you’re not at work. Only irresponsible managers expect people to check their work emails and permit employees to do so when they’re on holiday.
Holidays of late have been difficult to take with everything closed down to one extent or another. Historically, the British aim to take their holidays in the sun. When you’re stuck in the country, however, deciding on East Anglia instead of Wales, or Bournemouth instead of Oban, in January makes little difference, but going to Spain, or Majorca, or Greece can rejuvenate you and lift your spirits. Your employees should all be able to catch some sun while on holiday without having to wait until August to do so.
Six weeks of vacation per year is recommended, which is a little more than the statutory requirement. Instead of offering the minimum, why not give people what the research has shown they need.
Six weeks means they could take two weeks every three months, or one week every other month. If you want to promote the well-being of your employees and avoid burnout, then you must permit them to take regular holidays.
Holidays must be relaxing
It may seem self-evident, but holidays are meant to be relaxing. One way that companies thwart this is by closing between Christmas and the New Year and then forcing workers to use some of their holiday time then.
Those who can afford to take their families abroad or who enjoy winter sports may relish the thought, but not everyone does. Being cooped up in the house for a fortnight because your company has forced you to be on holiday at the darkest time of the year defies the meaning of the word.
Managers must set the example
You have an obligation to show people how to go on holiday, which means that you don’t respond to their phone calls or emails when you’re away. Off work means out-of-touch, unless it’s an emergency, such as in the military.
It doesn’t matter if you stay home or fly halfway around the world. If someone from work shows up at your house, then you tell them to contact you when you’re back in the office, and then give them the date. At the end of your holiday you notify their manager to tell them that someone they supervise violated your time off. It’s intolerable for someone to interrupt your holiday. The success or failure of the organisation doesn’t depend on you.
All you really need to do is to put the date of your return and a message which makes it clear that you won’t be reading emails or checking your phone during this time on an automatic message. Do this for both you email and your work phone. You may even want to invest in a separate private phone. Then when you go on holiday, you can turn OFF the one for work.
The impact on well-being from the pandemic will be felt for many years, and possibly for entire careers. All this talk of getting back to normal may apply to workplaces and working hours, though even that’s unlikely.
You can’t change how people feel as a result of the upheaval they went through. They’re likely to feel uncertain and apprehensive long after anything like normality returns, if it ever does.
Just as those who have fought in wars, the fact that they’re no longer in the combat zone doesn’t mean that they suddenly forget about it and carry on with their lives as if they had never been in it.
As a manager, you now have the added personal responsibility to promote employee well-being and to prevent those you supervise from burning out. Learn to recognize the signs, and remember that burnout can happen more easily now because remote working has become soup du jour.