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How Workplace Managers Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout

October 07, 2020 Employee Experience
David Roe
By David Roe

Recent research from Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, suggests that while remote working has many advantages it also has many disadvantages, not least of which is employee burnout. While long commutes to and from an office are on hold, at least temporarily, it seems that many workers are spending a lot more time in work related apps and communication services outside of work hours than they had been doing previously.

The Work Trend Index report looks at how the pandemic has impacted well-being at work globally. To do so, it examined how productivity patterns in Microsoft Teams have shifted since early this year by surveying 6,000 information and firstline workers in eight countries including Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, India, Singapore, the UK and the US.

The report also includes studies from the Microsoft Research group that shed light on the some of the productivity benefits of the once-dreaded commute. There are dozens of insights into the digital workplace and how workers are coping now, but, in all, the findings can be broken down into the following:

  1. The pandemic increased burnout at work – in some countries more than others.
  2. Causes of workplace stress differ for firstline and remote workers. Firstline workers are concerned about catching COVID-19, remote workers are concerned about the blurring of lines between homelife and worklife.
  3. Six months into the pandemic there are more communications and fewer boundaries. Data shows that people are in significantly more meetings, taking more ad-hoc calls and managing more incoming chats than they did before the pandemic
  4. No commute may be hurting, not helping, remote worker productivity. One third of remote workers said the lack of separation between work and life is negatively impacting their well-being.
  5. Studies show meditation can fight burnout and stress during the workday. Seven in 10 people (70%) said meditation could help decrease their work-related stress.

Overall, the research indicates that while there are advantages to remote working, for many people the stresses are adding up and impacting productivity.

Remote Work Vs. Onsite Work

Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at Vancouver-based Visier, which develops a workforce analytics platform, says we are in the midst of a challenging in-between period, where the dust from the initial shock of Covid-19 and transitioning to remote work has largely settled. Even still, many employees still face uncertainty on when, if ever, they will return to the office. Most people are still operating off a reactive set of norms around work, rather than intentional boundaries and without boundaries, burnout quickly follows.

If enterprises want to avoid employee burnout, they need to help employees proactively set boundaries around remote work and close the "empathy gap" that results when managers lack information on employees’ working environments. “Closing the empathy gap requires an understanding of what’s happening behind the Zoom camera, terse slack message or emotionless email,” he said. If you want to do this at scale, managers need to collect data on their employees’ working conditions and use that to visualize their headspace before you talk to them.

Related Article: How to Strengthen Company-Wide Communication, In and Out of the Remote Workplace

Reacting With Business Leaders

Perhaps the most impactful thing an organization can do to prevent burnout is change how leaders interact with their teams, according to Gary Beckstrand, VP at Salt Lake City O.C. Tanner, an employee experience app development company. The many issues that cause employee burnout can be fixed with small changes in how your organization and leaders interact with employees daily and show recognition and appreciation for the work that their employees do.

Burnout is not something that happens overnight; rather it is a slow accumulation of exhaustion and cynicism. Giving employees more information, support, and control over their work could lower burnout levels. “Organizations can do this by creating peak and micro-experiences that help employees feel connected to their organizations, supported and appreciated by their leaders and teams, clear about their goal and performance and listened to by their companies,” he said.

Simon Haighton-Williams, CEO of UK-based Adaptavist, which help businesses implement digital transformation strategies and their Atlassian deployments, recently published a study looking at the effects of work-from-home on employees and employers. The study of 2800 global workers look at current trends and attitudes towards digital communication in a COVID-19 world.

The research pointed to a variety of things that were causing stress (including a lack of proper tools and training and an over-abundance of digital channels like Slack, MSFT Teams, WhatsApp and others) which in turn posed major challenges to any productivity or well-being gains the COVID work-at-home shift may have created.  There are several important recommendations flagged in the research to prevent burnout in the first place:

1. Over-Communicate

Under normal circumstances, employees need to know and understand what they are trying to achieve and how that will help them do better. In these uncertain times, that need is heightened ten-fold to help alleviate stress.

2. Invest in Culture

 To make remote working succeed long-term enterprises must ensure they have a strong remote working culture and plenty of virtual social interaction to help all employees manage burnout and stress.

3. Create Boundaries

An 'always on’ environment threatens motivation and increases burnout risk. In the study, the absence of boundaries between work and personal lives was ranked as the highest threat to employee motivation. The always on nature of digital comms (42%) and number of channels (31%) were the greatest sources of frustration. Over 60% of respondents said they do not switch off digital notifications after work, thereby contributing to the "always on" effect.

Supporting Employees

Employees are going through continuous change, especially as we all navigate the pandemic. One of the biggest changes has been the move to working remotely — either for the employee or their partner/roommates, or both, GuideSpark, Redwood City, Calif. CEO Keith Kitani, told us.

This move to remote work has caused tremendous strain for many employees as they may be in less-than-ideal working conditions, becoming a caregiver for kids or other family members, trying to balance their personal and professional lives — which are no longer separated by physical space. These additional obstacles can increase the possibility of burnout, so organizations need to be flexible enough to understand, empathize with, and support employees during these challenging times. To do that there are four non-technical things enterprises can do:

1. Empower Managers

In the rapidly changing, diverse, digital enterprise, managing burnout requires the ability to relate to employees as individuals. Many employees are in situations with their own unique factors, so it is critical to empower managers to support employees according to their specific circumstances.

Employees need to feel as though managers are on their side, especially while working remote. That is why it is crucial to enable managers to lead, coach, and support their direct reports effectively on a daily basis.

2. Invest in Culture and Connection

The digital enterprise reduces the number of informal, personal interactions that would normally be a major contributor to reinforcing culture and creating employee connection — both between employees themselves and between employees and the organization. Studies have found that 56% of burnout is caused by a negative work culture.

3. Prevent Change Fatigue

The digital enterprise is much more agile and efficient, it allows organizations to change or adapt quickly. However, change can also be exhausting, and enough of it in a short period can lead to employee burnout. To prevent this, ensure there's strong executive sponsorship of change initiatives, and develop a strategy to communicate with employees to keep them engaged throughout the process.

4. Create Relevant Communications

One of the core components of a digital workplace is internal communications. This new remote environment has pushed enterprises to quickly implement several communications-related improvements including greater transparency from leaders, more third-party tools to digitally connect, shorter, more frequent meetings and faster communications and updates.  

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