Stress pandemic: how to deal with burnout?

Wednesday, November 21

When the coronavirus pandemic began, 2.6 billion people were stuck in their homes.  As it turned out, we were not ready for this: neither the employees nor the managers who had to organize the transition of personnel to new working conditions with minimal damage to the company.

Many people noticed that the quarantine had a negative impact on the performance and motivation of people. But it would be wrong to blame the remote working only. In fact, the lockdown was a catalyst for problems that have been with us for a long time. We just ignored them. These events showed how overwhelmed and exhausted we were already. As a result., the risk of burnout at work has increased dramatically.

What is burnout and how does it ruin our lives?

The term burnout in its modern sense was first used in 1974 by the German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberg. But no one really cared about it back then. Only in 2019 the term “burnout” was included in the updated version of the ICD (International Classification of Diseases). WHO speaks of burnout as one of the professional syndromes. According to ICD, burnout is “a syndrome resulting from chronic stress at work in the absence of adequate measures to reduce it.”

From this description, it follows that burnout is not a disease, but a syndrome. That is, it is a set of different symptoms as a result of work stress that a person cannot cope with.

This condition is characterized by three symptoms:

  • exhaustion, lack of energy;
  • loss of enthusiasm and interest in work, cynical attitude towards tasks and people;
  • decreased efficiency,  people have no faith in themselves, their abilities.

These signs of burnout are based on 30 years of work by Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan Jackson of Rutgers University, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University. Scientists have found that 6 main risk factors that lead to burnout.

Burnout risk factors

It needs to make clear that burnout is not stress or depression. Stress is often associated with certain events and when these factors disappear, then stress goes away with them. While burnout is a state that you experience all the time, regardless of the situation.

The differences between depression and burnout are a little more complicated. Both depression and burnout are accompanied by the same symptoms: loss of motivation, unwillingness to do something, apathy. But at the same time, burnout affects a certain area of ​​your life, and depression affects all areas of life, not just work.

In the fall of 2020, a team of scientists conducted burnout research with support from the Harvard Business Review. Jennifer Moss, a work organization expert, along with other researchers surveyed more than 1,500 respondents from 46 countries. The study involved people from different industries, working in different positions. Research has shown that burnout is a worldwide problem and must be coped with.

Here are the results the study revealed:

  • 89% of people reported that their work-life has become much worse.
  • 85% are not too happy with life.
  • 56% said their workload had increased
  • 62% of respondents find it difficult to cope with the workload reported having experienced burnout “often” or “very often” in the previous three months.
  • 57% of people noticed that the pandemic “seriously affected” their work or “completely turned it around.”
  • 55% feel that they are deprived of the opportunity to manage their own life, including work
  • 25% are unable to maintain close contact with family, 39% – with colleagues, 50% – with friends.
  • 21% of respondents assessed their condition as “good”, and only 2% – as “excellent”.

Before the pandemic, 50 thousand people participated in exactly the same study.  Then people were found to have much fewer signs of burnout. For the majority of 2020 respondents, researchers noticed emotional exhaustion and a cynical attitude towards work. These are the main signs of burnout syndrome.

Michael Leiter, one of the scientists, is alarmed by the findings: “… they put a lot of effort into keeping their jobs and personal lives afloat. We are worried about the degree of indifference to work…. People are frustrated by the country’s unpreparedness for the pandemic, injustice at work and in the distribution system, ”says Michael.

As it turns out, burnout is most common among millennials who are now 25-34 years old. A lot of millennials haven’t found themselves yet, they earn little money, need support, and often feel lonely. Lockdown only exacerbated these problems and became a powerful burnout factor. One of the survey participants shared that the pandemic weakened him physically and mentally. He was forced to seek help from a psychologist as he was at a dead end. At the same time, he began to earn less and now he feels that he needs to start his career from scratch again.

How did we get to global burnout?

As we said, the pandemic has increased the problem of burnout, but it has existed before the Covid-19. For example, doctors and teachers worked a lot even before the pandemic and earned little money.  And now they are forced to work in completely new conditions. Especially doctors and nurses, who are now literally working to the point of exhaustion.

In other areas, the situation is not much better. In the IT industry, working overtime has become the norm, with some employees even competing who’s gonna work more hours without breaks. Many people who work in this area also believe that the weekend is for losers only (no).

Leaders only encourage this unhealthy zeal for work. Even Elon Musk, responding to claims that Tesla employees work overtime, said: “There are places where it is much easier to work, but no one has yet managed to change the world in 40 hours a week.” – How much work does it take to change the world? “About 80 hours on an ongoing basis,” Musk said. A similar opinion was found in such giants as Uber and Amazon.

As soon as the pandemic began, no one thought that it would stay with us for a long time. At first, we worked remotely for a month, then another month, then another … Neither the government, nor the leaders, nor the workers were ready for such a scenario. People began to replace office communication with virtual ones. Zoom conferences have become a daily ritual for millions of people around the world. They were cheering each other on, playing, and exercising together online. But very soon such communication didn’t seem such a pleasure and became the next work task, not entertainment.

This loss of interest began to occur everywhere. Do you remember how in the spring of 2020 everyone supported medical workers? The doctors and nurses were greeted as heroes. Now all this has come to naught. People are tired, they need support and hence, cannot give it to others.

How did we get here? Here are some of the reasons for global burnout, according to Jennifer Moss:

We have not adjusted the workload

Studies conducted before the pandemic indicated that overwork is the main reason behind burnout. According to Gallup, the risk of burnout jumps up if you work more than 50 hours a week. During the pandemic, this problem only increased. People were unable to find the balance between work and personal life, everything got mixed up and as a result, we began to work more. Regular Zoom meetings have increased the workday by an average of 48 minutes, scientists say.

People didn’t get independence and freedom

Lockdown was a real challenge for many people. Many parents had to work and sit with their children at the same time because kindergartens and schools were also closed. People balanced between family and work and often did not cope with it. Lockdown also exacerbated gender inequality in the work environment. According to the US Development Center, women lost their jobs four times more often than men. After all, it was women who were responsible for all housework and other members of the family. It became impossible for them to work in such conditions. Women were left behind as everything they had achieved before the pandemic was swept away by the crisis, – says Jennifer.

We spent too much time on useless online meetings

Zoom meetings are just like hell for most employees. They take a lot of time and often are useless. Even offline meetings don’t prove to be productive. According to the study, before the pandemic, about 55 million meetings a year were held in the United States. And the loss for organizations due to their unproductiveness was $ 37 billion. And in the pandemic, there were many more such useless meetings.

Video calls are more tiring for a person both physically and emotionally. We do not always feel comfortable when communicating through the monitor. Also, communication delays negatively affect our opinion about the interlocutor.

One of the respondents said that at some point he had to sleep with his legs raised because they were swollen from the constant sitting. Sleep quality also deteriorated. He said that there is almost no time left for himself: as soon as one call ended, the next one begins.

We do not understand how difficult it is for people

Burnout is much scarier than most people imagine it to be. A vivid example of this is the story of Dr. Lorna Breen, the head of the emergency department at a hospital in Manhattan. She recalls what happened in the hospital just like Armageddon. First, she had the coronavirus herself, then, without really having completed the treatment, she returned to work. There she faced the despair of the realization of her own weakness because she couldn’t save everyone.  This greatly affected her mental and physical health and caused severe burnout.

This story makes us wonder how much the pandemic is affecting our lives and how it exacerbates issues that we have often ignored before. Remember how you tried to drown out the feeling of apathy and loss of interest in work with yoga, meditation, breathing practices, and so on? But any yoga app can’t fix the burnout problem if people don’t recognize it and start talking about their feelings and supporting each other.

How to deal with burnout?

There is no protocol for the treatment of burnout syndrome in medicine. Yet, researchers at the Harward Business Review offer some simple measures to help fight burnout. Here’s what they suggest to focus on:

Feeling meaningful at work can help people protect themselves from burnout

The more meaning people see in their work, the less they burn out. If people know that they are doing something important for society, it serves them as a huge motivation. They feel that they are working for the good and this helps them to love their job more.

Reasonable  workload level

This is easy to solve at the organizational level. The company must clearly show which tasks are a priority and which are secondary. It is especially important to deal with Zoom meetings because they are often meaningless and time-consuming. Before you schedule a call, ask yourself, is it really important? How can you make your call more effective? And don’t forget to keep track of how the participants of the conversation are feeling. Perhaps someone is more comfortable communicating without video, and someone has to disconnect early.

Feeling comfortable to discuss psychological issues at work

Almost half of the respondents said they were afraid to discuss psychological problems at work. And that’s the problem. It can be addressed by creating a culture of psychological safety at work.

If an employee did something wrong, there is no point in yelling at him. It is better to talk to the person, find out what worries him and how he can be helped. Constructive dialogue always positively affects the solution of the problem.

Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School offers 4 options for mental health assistance to employees:

  • Offer online mental health resources and professionals who can help.
  • Flexible working hours or paid sick leave if needed.
  • Mutual Aid Program. A company can send one of its employees to psychological assistance courses, and he will share knowledge and help other colleagues.
  • Continuous communication between managers and subordinates. You need to ask people more often how they are and whether they need help.

Empathizing Leader

Researchers have found that people often lack empathy at work. And empathy, by the way, is good for job satisfaction, reduces burnout, and motivates employees. An empathic leader must be able to listen and hear his subordinates and, as far as possible, help people cope with the psychological problems that have arisen.

When someone asks you “How are you doing?” and you answer “Okay,” how many times are you actually okay? Research has shown that only 19% of the time this answer is true. Therefore, when at work in response you hear that the person’s business is “normal”, it makes sense to ask again and offer support.

Keeping in touch with family and friends

The pandemic has shown that many of us are lonely and need to communicate. Zoom calls cannot convey the atmosphere of live communication. Therefore, many people really want to go back to the office. After all, the pleasant atmosphere of a friendly team has a positive effect on our emotional health.

In some companies, employees can choose between remote work and office work. Or a flexible schedule: work from home and several times a week in the office. This option, as it turned out, is perfect for many people.

Always be prepared for a crisis

The most important thing, according to Jennifer, is to fix the labor system now, and not wait for a new crisis to take action.

She found that workgroups that implement burnout prevention strategies at work are doing much better at coping with the pandemic. So Alan May of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) noted that thanks to their practice of increasing the internal comfort of employees, introduced back in 2018, it is much easier for employees to adapt to the new reality. He canceled meetings on Fridays, company managers regularly talked to employees and checked their psychological state. Thanks to this practice, they managed to provide assistance to employees in time and protect them from burnout.

And it gives huge results:

  • 91% of HPE employees agree that employee health and well-being are top priorities for the company.
  • 92% agreed that management cares about their well-being.
  • 91% say that line managers are flexible to help them balance their personal and professional lives.

These July 2020 survey scores clearly show that employees feel cared for and appreciate the support from the company.

If your company wants to motivate employees to work better and feel better, implement a burnout prevention system. This will help them feel protected and valued. Take care of the quality of employee communication, study the practices of companies that have already implemented psychological assistance systems. Slowly but surely, you will come to the conclusion that people will get rid of burnout and will treat their work with love and responsibility.

This pandemic gave us a chance to see that we need to solve the problem of burnout at work, not ignore it. Jennifer is confident that the crisis is the best time for strategic changes in the work organization. And we must act now.


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