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An Epidemic During a Pandemic: The Cure for Employee Burnout

Nick Bogacz
Nick Bogacz

Employee burnout is on the rise. In a difficult year, it's hard to fault someone if their performance slips. Here are some strategies to light a fire and end the burnout.

There are lots of ways to describe 2020, but as we get nearer to the end of the year, one word springs to mind: exhausting. Regardless of how the pandemic is affecting your business or how the results of the election can potentially affect your bottom line, most of us are sharing a collective sense of weariness from the months of negative news and feelings.

Look no further than your employees, who are feeling this morale-sapping "burnout" at worrying rates.

One poll released around Labor Day showed 58% of U.S. employees were burned out, with over half attributing the cause to COVID-19 factors. Another poll, conducted with the help of Mental Health America, found 75% of workers have felt burnout; 40% said they have experienced it this year. You might say the pandemic is causing a burnout epidemic.

Look past the numbers, and it's easy for business owners to find anecdotal evidence of burnout. Employee behaviors may be changing, or their work performance could be slipping, but burnout is something that manifests in lots of ways. It would be hardly surprising if you've felt it yourself – really, there are few who can say they haven't muttered to themselves, "I wish everything could be back to normal."

How do you keep the fire going in your workplace? How do you keep employees' hopes high? There are some ways you can work toward that goal, starting today, but first, you need an understanding of just what burnout is and why it's so dangerous.

Defining burnout

While we tend to use the term in a colloquial sense, burnout is an actual medical condition. According to the World Health Organization, it is defined as a "syndrome conceptualized from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." Characteristics include:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Specifically, burnout is related to the workplace, but certainly, the stresses outside of work are influencing employees. Combined, these factors can lead to depression and even disrupt the function of the brain.

For employers, there isn't much you can do from a medical standpoint. You can and should, however, make employees aware of what resources exist to help them cope during difficult times. For example, many employer-sponsored insurance plans have eliminated co-pays for telehealth visits with mental health professionals.

And in the meantime, there are ways to create a work environment that employees, hopefully, will find to be a haven.

Keep open lines of communication

Among the most stress-inducing qualities of 2020 is uncertainty. Will coronavirus cases rise? Will a vaccine be distributed soon? How will shutdowns impact my business? What will happen with the election? Rarely are there quick and easy answers, but people will still look to their leaders to supply them.

I have had employees ask me, "Are we going to make it?" This is not necessarily because there are signs of that, but it's a fair question for the employee when every day the news features stories about businesses struggling, particularly as my business is a restaurant, among the hardest hit industries during the pandemic.

The key is not to shy away or hedge when faced with these questions. If employees are living in the dark as to your intentions for the business, it can breed speculation and gossip. Instead, be open, empathize, and share the solutions you are engaging to help the business survive. Let them know you are glad they brought the concern to you and there is always an open line of communication. Try to soothe and encourage without giving false expectations.

It is also best to not simply wait for an employee to share their worries. Be proactive with your intentions, as much as you can be. With an honest message – even if it’s not 100% positive – employees will know they can trust leadership. They'll know they have someone on their side, and that makes a difference in fighting burnout.

Celebrate and appreciate

As we enter the holiday season, many people are thinking about smaller-scale gatherings with families and ways to celebrate the season with loved ones, while staying socially distant. The same thinking goes for businesses that typically have large holiday parties. In lots of cases, the responsible decision, unfortunately, is to just cancel them altogether.

End-of-year parties or annual picnics are great ways to celebrate your employees, relieving them of duties to eat, drink and be merry. Without them, you're missing out on events that foster teambuilding, strengthen morale and fend off burnout. The question turns to, how do you show employees you appreciate them, especially in difficult times?

On top of health challenges, economic realities can get in the way. There are plenty of perks to offer, such as free meals, gift cards or traditional bonuses, but some businesses may not be able to spare much for bonuses if it's been a lean year.

If you can't celebrate your employees, you can at least make an effort to appreciate them. You might already do this, but go out of the way to tell them how much their work matters to you and the business. Even a simple "thank you" goes a long way to brightening an employee's day. People want to know their work matters.

Take a vacation (without going anywhere)

For many, there is no better way to reduce burnout than by getting out of town. Putting hundreds of miles between you and the office, getting a cool drink in your hand and relaxing on a beach is amazingly restorative. But in 2020, vacations either were drastically scaled down or canceled altogether, and at a time when people are feeling a financial pinch, they may not be able to afford a getaway for some time.

That does not, however, mean you can't still take a trip. In fact, you don't even need to leave your home. While meditation isn't for everyone, we can all take daily mental vacations. Think about what relaxes you or what allows you to reset. For some, it's a trip to the gym to burn off some steam alongside the calories. Others might enjoy driving around and blasting their favorite music.

Without that brief escape, it becomes harder to reset, making these daily vacations important to controlling burnout. Go long enough without taking one of those brief mental sojourns, and it will eventually lose its efficacy.

Be productive

Ultimately, if you or an employee is beginning to experience burnout or any mental health issues, the worst thing to do is ignore it. Remember to share resources for assistance with your staff, or at least reach out to make sure your employees are doing OK.

Sometimes, an employee feeling burnout just requires a change of pace: a new position or a different work environment. There is something invigorating about taking on a new task. You might even find they thrive and are more productive in the role, and your business is better because of it.

No matter how you address employee burnout, the key is to keep trying. You may not be able to help every employee. As mentioned earlier, this can be a serious condition that is part of a broader mental health issue. Most likely, you're not a therapist, but you can be a valuable source of support.

Image Credit: Halfpoint / Getty Images
Nick Bogacz
Nick Bogacz,
business.com Writer
See Nick Bogacz's Profile
I'm the founder and president of Caliente Pizza & Draft House, a Pittsburgh-area restaurant with five (and soon to be six) locations. I've been in the pizza industry for 25 years, starting as a delivery boy (who wrecked his car on his first ever delivery) and working up to management before starting my own business. We found our niche in a crowded market by becoming THE place to go for craft beer in the Pittsburgh region, but lately we've become known more and more for our pizza. Our "Mee-Maw" pie won Best Pizza in America at the 2019 World Pizza Championships.