How To Help Employees Deal With Burnout
The worst of Covid seems to be over. So, just as a sense of normalcy is returning, why are America’s workers reporting record levels of burnout? And why is it driving what’s being called the “Great Resignation”?
Psychiatrist Mark Goulston, MD, says burnout (characterized by depletion, cynicism, and reduced productivity) is a normal response to the extreme stress and trauma caused by a global pandemic that has dragged out for over a year—and the delay is no surprise.
“Burnout happens progressively and cumulatively,” says Dr. Goulston, coauthor along with Diana Hendel, PharmD, of Why Cope When You Can Heal? How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD. “Spend a year working long hours under stressful circumstances, trying to also homeschool your kids, feeling isolated, grieving all these losses, and worrying about the safety of your loved ones and yourself, and eventually you will hit a breaking point.
“It takes time to reflect on and process what you’ve been through,” he adds. “It makes sense that many people are just now getting to that breaking point.”
Obviously, a cadre of burned-out employees is bad for engagement, innovation, productivity, and all the other factors that make a company hum. What’s more, the pandemic has given employees a lot of time to think and reassess. And many have concluded that life is too short to work for companies that don’t seem to care about them as human beings.
“Leaders need to take burnout seriously,” says Hendel, an organizational trauma expert. “Get intentional about monitoring your employees’ mental health, which is intertwined with burnout, and intervening when needed. This matters in the best of times, but especially in the wake of a traumatic event like Covid.
5 Tips for Leaders
Stand firm against stigma. Burnout absolutely impacts people’s mental health, say Goulston and Hendel. When it’s untreated, people can become depressed and anxious, and they may be at greater risk for substance abuse and possibly even suicide. That’s why a holistic approach to fighting burnout includes making sure employees feel safe enough to come to you when they’re struggling.
“We need to do all we can to bring mental health issues into the light—and to stand firm against the stigma that discourages people from talking about it,” says Hendel.
If you have an EAP, make sure people feel comfortable accessing it. An employee assistance program (EAP) helps employees with issues that affect their health and mental and emotional well-being. If your organization has an EAP, make sure that people know the services it offers, and that they can access them confidentially. Reinforce the message that there is no shame in using an EAP. And if you do not currently have an EAP, consider setting one up now.
Talk up the subject of mental health. Don’t assume people “just know” you care about this issue. They probably don’t. Say the words “I want you to be mentally and emotionally healthy. Please come to me if you need help. My door is always open.” And don’t just say it once. Say it, announce it, write it, and reinforce it, over and over.
Regularly meet with employees one-on-one so you’re more likely to be aware of their personal struggles. This is a good leadership practice anyway as it builds strong connections between leaders and employees. But especially in tumultuous times like now, it helps you know if they’re grieving a loss or their spouse has lost a job or their child is struggling in school. The better you know your employees, the more likely you’ll be to intervene when they need it.
Be aware of the signals you’re sending. (People need to feel psychologically safe to tell the truth.) It’s crucial for leaders to allow people to feel their emotions and to talk about it when they are having a tough time. Pay attention to the signals you’re sending. Never penalize people, overtly or subtly, for bringing their secret struggles into the light. Never imply that this is a sign of “weakness” or that they are finding a reason to shirk their duties. And, if you think you’d never do this, know that it’s possible to subconsciously push people away through stigmatizing them.
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