In mid-December, a light appeared at the end of a long, dark tunnel when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued emergency authorizations for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. A month later, that light wavered as the death toll in the U.S. reached 400,000 — having reached 300,000 just five weeks earlier — and the outgoing director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the worst of the pandemic was yet to come. As Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Even as millions of people are getting vaccinated, many employees won’t be returning to the workplace for months to come. Instead, they will continue to work from home with all the distractions, stresses, and fears that they have experienced over the past year. This is not an insignificant problem: 25 percent of respondents to a PwC Workforce Pulse Survey conducted between January 11 and 13, 2021, said their physical and mental well-being deteriorated during the pandemic; more than 20 percent said their ability to disconnect, their work–life balance, and their workloads worsened. These results could be magnified in the weeks and months ahead by spikes in COVID case rates and deaths and continuing economic uncertainties, especially with regards to job security.
This makes one of the WFH (working from home) challenges that leaders face even more acute: How do you assess employee wellness when your only point of contact is a phone call or a computer screen? For answers, I talked to two experts.
Start by recognizing that WFH is affecting people in different ways. “I’ve called it ‘revenge of the introverts’ because employees who find those other people at work annoying and distracting are having a great time,” Michael Leiter, a psychologist and professor who is studying the pandemic’s effects on healthcare workers, told me in a Zoom interview. “But for those with young children schooling at home at the same time they’re trying to work, it isn’t as much fun. And those who like being at the office with other people are out of luck — and for some of them, working from home is really lonely.”
Next, try to identify those employees whose normal routines and behaviors are most disrupted by WFH and as a result, could be vulnerable to burnout. “Burnout isn’t caused by mental illness,” explains Leiter, who did pioneering research on employee burnout and engagement. “It is caused by problems in an employee’s relationship with the workplace. The three things that define burnout are being exhausted, cynical, and discouraged.”
Make as much as you can of whatever accomplishments people have had over the past year.… It provides the strength to go on.”
Look for people who aren’t as productive as they have been in the past, who seem increasingly suspicious or disgruntled, or who are pulling back and distancing themselves. “You do miss something without regular, in-person contact,” Leiter says. “But constant comments about being tired or overwhelmed or frantic, that there’s just not enough time are clues. There’s a lot one can complain about these days, but if that’s all you hear from someone, the complainer is trapped in a box. It’s totally negative. Be aware of who isn’t talking on calls and who hasn’t got anything they want to bring up and share with the group.”
Looking for signs of pandemic burnout shouldn’t be limited to observation. Leaders can be proactive, too, says Sherry Coffman, a vice president of human resources at the environmental and healthcare business units of insurer W.R. Berkley. “We told managers to communicate on a regular basis with all their folks, and not by just asking, ‘How are you doing?’ because you will typically get, ‘I’m doing fine,’” she told me. “But by getting more personal, by asking about things related to work, like, ‘How are you handling not doing X?’ and about their lives, like, ‘How are you dealing with the kids going to school online?’”
Managers should also be particularly sensitive to work–life boundaries. “I’ve noticed with COVID that employees are having a hard time establishing ground rules for their work, which puts them on the path to burnout,” Coffman says. “If an employee is on the job at 7 a.m. and working until 9 p.m. on a consistent basis, that is not healthy. That’s something managers need to be checking on.”
Pandemic burnout, like many other employee wellness issues, is a sensitive area, which employees may be uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss with their managers, especially if they suspect it could affect their standing in the company. So what should you do if you believe that an employee is experiencing the symptoms described above?
Both Leiter and Coffman say that managers should be cognizant of the line between managerial and wellness interventions. Coffman suggests steering employees to assistance programs. Berkley, for example, offers a program called Health Advocate through its healthcare provider, which is administered through a third party and offers anonymity. She also tells managers to contact her. “I’m reaching out to employees all the time, especially during this pandemic,” she says. “I’ll check in and see how an employee is doing. Often, people are more comfortable opening up to an HR person, who isn’t their boss.”
Handing people off is not the only option for managers. They also can help employees through work-related interventions. Make team calls more participative. Focus on learning — what employees are discovering about themselves and how they work best. “Ask, ‘OK, how can we rearrange the work here and get things done, but not wear people out so much? How can we do this smarter?’” adds Leiter. “This, rather than trying to delve into people’s mental health issues, is the domain of the manager.”
Leiter also emphasizes the positive effect that feelings of achievement can engender. “Make as much as you can of whatever accomplishments people have had over the past year,” he says. “Having made it this far, some people, particularly the doctors I’ve been looking at who now have treatments and vaccines, have a strong sense of accomplishment, effectiveness, and confidence in their abilities. That’s a very powerful thing. It provides the strength to go on and it’s something managers can nurture.”
This renewed sense of empowerment may provide a form of immunity to burnout.