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James Houston


Senior Consultant

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Why companies must change expectations in the face of employee burnout

A burnout crisis is looming unless we change the structure of work in line with our new reality.

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, I’m fine. You?”

“We’re all fine here!”

We’ve become adept at putting on a happy face, ready for the next round of Zoom calls – but what would our colleagues see if we allowed the mask to drop? What if we kept the camera on for a few minutes after the call ends?

After a year spent working in conditions alien to most of us, chipper resilience in the face of ‘new-normal’ novelty has worn off, giving way to full-on fatigue. Is it any wonder? It’s not just the gloom of the 24/7 news cycle getting us down. Our waning motivation is a predicable reaction to running at an unsustainable pace for far too long.

Setting the burnout bar

We routinely saw and accepted the over-compensation signals when our worlds of work first upended back in March 2020. We justified logging on earlier and leaving later by clawing back time from lost commutes. Working through lunch and back-to-back video calls became the norm and we all began to assimilate.

Perhaps we feared we’d be at risk of redundancy if we showed a chink in our armour? While they were an adorable distraction at first, how long could we expect our bosses to see the funny side of our photobombing kids – and how long until our patience ran out? In adapting to a new way of working – at breakneck speed for many in industries traditionally slow to innovate – no-one wanted to be left behind or be seen to be struggling. We all needed to grab an oar and start rowing furiously – we were all in the same boat after all.

If we take a logical leap and say that burnout decreases engagement, then this unrelenting pace has some serious business impacts.

You can only keep paddling for so long, however. Within the same four walls, the distractions of family life, and health and loneliness worries about our loved ones merged with the stress of tackling the next urgent report, event, project. The compound effect left us vulnerable to burnout.

While the novelty of working from home has long since worn thin, the seeds of overcompensation sown early in the pandemic have grown into expectations of a pace that isn’t sustainable.

Searching for solutions

Privately, we are recognising the risks and are looking to self-help. A week after Boris Johnson announced the second lockdown, Google UK searches for the term ‘burnout symptoms’ hit a massive spike. It’s in our nature to try and revert to what feels normal, but with no end in sight for the restrictions, we’re searching for new ways to cope.

Preventing burnout, particularly when a driving factor comes from our workload, can’t happen in isolation. There needs to be a collaborative effort between employer and employee, and that can only work by understanding that expectations need to change.

Feeling squeezed

In many organisations, furloughing staff or freezing reward and new hires, has left employees who are still working facing increased pressure to deliver on the same compensation. Fearing the inevitable recession, companies are filling their reserves to cover what may follow, squeezing everyone to the max in the process, pressuring them to work harder and faster.

Working to a standard that is unrealistic when viewed in the context of so many external pressures and distractions, employees are finding themselves struggling to stay productive. My colleague Lindsay Kohler, a behavioural scientist, has seen this increasingly over the past year: “background stress and all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic can lead us to burning out faster, because our stores of energy get depleted faster”.

Ramping up engagement

Employee engagement is a reliable predictor of performance. If we take a logical leap and say that burnout decreases engagement, then this unrelenting pace has some serious business impacts.

Not only do employers have a moral responsibility to look after their people during these difficult times, but it makes good business sense too. While they can’t change world events, employers can help change the experience in their workplace – wherever that might be – to help build a buffer against burnout.  

Appreciation, leader visibility, and enabling connection are key three ways that businesses can boost morale, writes Lindsay. Saying ‘thank you’ and showing recognition is a great first step, and one that can spread organically through a business. When leaders turn on their cameras, talk directly to their people and answer their questions in a renewed spirit of openness, they can turn around feelings of isolation and separation. Enabling colleagues to connect directly with each other on non-work topics – perhaps forming groups of like-minded food fanatics, avid box-set viewers or home-schooling parents– can be a great way of combating loneliness and building communities.

Spot and address issues before they escalate. Checking in with everyone – perhaps line-managers facilitating a morning team call with cameras on, or one-to-one check-ins – can encourage people to ask themselves a few questions too, to establish if they’re working too hard or too fast and approaching burnout. Questions could include, ‘how motivated do I feel?’; do simple tasks and decisions feel easy?’ or ‘how connected to family, friends and colleagues am I?’

Setting a new pace

However successful its wellbeing activities, the ultimate business objective mustn’t be that employees simply continue to be high-performing super-achievers, regardless of the cost.

It’s important to continue to lift our heads above the frantic day-to-day to remind ourselves of the strange context we’re all working in. A year ago, none of this was our reality. We’ve normalised a way of working born out of necessity, and we haven’t yet ironed out all the kinks – we might never do so.

Just as we did at the beginning, we should rediscover our patience and tolerance, so we remember to recognise that employees genuinely do have the best intentions – they’re just like the rest of us, facing into enormous stress and frustration.

Employers who prioritise wellbeing and better communication will release the pressure valve and help their people beat burnout.

Interested in this topic? Read How Covid-19 will impact employee wellbeing in the long term.

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James Houston

Senior Consultant

Read more from James Houston

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