Ways to Promote Work-Life Balance by Addressing the Main Drivers of COVID-Related Burnout
Research cited in a Sept. 12, 2020, Economist article determined that employees were working two extra hours per day since going remote to minimize the spread of COVID-19. This is just one data point indicating we are busier, more stressed and more emotionally exhausted than ever before. All this is wreaking havoc on our productivity and leading to COVID-related burnout.
The six main sources of burnout are
- Work overload,
- Lack of control,
- Insufficient reward,
- Breakdown of community,
- Absence of fairness, and
- Value conflict.
According to venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz, work overload, lack of control and the breakdown of community are particularly potent today as we put in longer hours, confront a raging pandemic and limit ourselves largely to Zoom-mediated human contact.
Given all this, I have organized recommendations for employers to help prevent employee burnout.
How to Prevent Work Overload
Start by measuring how burned out employees are at present. Doing this can inform how much effort to throw at the problem and offer a benchmark to help determine whether future interventions are working.
Tunguz recommends using two burnout assessments:
- A short questionnaire published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in an article titled “Reversing Burnout: How to Rekindle Your Passion for Your Work.”
- The UWES (Utrecht Work Engagement Scale), which measures job satisfaction and motivation.
Both are available for free online by searching the titles.
Once you get a baseline, it is time to implement tactics to prevent and address burnout. Allison Levitsky wrote in the Nov. 13, 2020, Silicon Valley Business Journal that HR heads at tech startups said employees working from home offer the most positive feedback about time off and stipends for child care.
Of course, time off is not relaxing when workers have to cram the same amount of work into fewer days. It is not a bad idea, then, to let employees who are experiencing severe burnout know that their jobs are safe if they are less productive than usual.
Another way to prevent work overload is to offer extra mental health and well-being benefits. Findings from a National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions survey reported on March 30 of last year showed just over half of employers said they had recently done this. Such benefits include subsidies for online counseling, meditation classes and fitness programs. You can also provide workers with apps to help with mental health and sleep.
How to Empower Workers
Unplugging from work in the evenings and on weekends is essential. Continuing to commute to and from a dedicated work location, sticking to a schedule and using rituals can also be helpful. For example, physically changing locations promotes work-life balance by telling one’s brain that it is time to switch modes between the workplace and home.
On the employer side of the equation, it is important to empower workers to set their own working hours and to respect employees’ choices when scheduling meetings, sending messages and setting deadlines. This helps prevent being in work mode all the time.
Team leaders should make it extremely easy for employees to communicate their working hours and to share reminders of when they will not be available. This is particularly important if teammates live in different time zones.
Management should also communicate to staff that they are not only allowed, but encouraged, to turn off notifications after a certain time each night. Suggesting that employers put their work laptop in a desk drawer when they are done for the day can do wonders.
Last, sticking to daily rituals signals the brain when the workday has started and ended. Taking a walk, closing the laptop, exercising and running errands are all great ways to get away from the computer screen. When staying online is necessary or preferred, reserving one computer or set of devices for work and another for personal use helps signal the brain which activities are job-related.
How to Support Community-Building
Facilitating social interactions among employees is essential for preventing burnout. Proving a support network can help workers thrive during trauma and improve people’s ability to respond to stress. Not all employers had learned these lessons last spring.
During March and April of 2020, nearly 40 percent of the more than 2,700 employees surveyed by Qualtrics and SAP said no one at their company or agency had inquired about their mental wellness since the start of the pandemic. Fully 75 percent of survey respondents also said they had become more socially isolated, and nearly a third of employees had no informal contact with their team. As reported in a May 1, 2020, Harvard Business Review article, the workers who had not been checked in on were nearly 40 percent more likely to report declines in mental health since going remote.
At my company, we set aside time on Tuesday evenings to connect over something that is not work-related. We often do trivia or play online game such as Drawful. Employees’ kids are invited to participate, as well. We also implemented an app that pairs employees randomly for coffee chats.
In October, we hosted a socially distanced and masked outdoor pumpkin carving contest. Other employers regularly hold virtual happy hours, escape rooms, wine tastings and group art classes.
One more way to maintain a sense of community is having managers regularly check in with team members about their burnout levels and work-life balance. In addition, leadership should update workers on plans and resources. For example, the University of Washington held weekly town halls over Zoom and sent staff emails detailing the evolving situation and the wide range of concerns workers expressed.
Helping employees establish and maintain a healthy work-life balance is something every organization can do. Steps include
- Measuring employees’ current levels of burnout,
- Easing up on expectations around productivity,
- Offering workers some time off,
- Upgrading and expanding mental health and wellness offerings,
- Empowering and encouraging workers to clearly delineate and defend their work and leisure hours, and
- Facilitating community-building by planning and sponsoring online and masked, outdoor and socially distanced opportunities for workers to socialize.
While working from home and living through a global pandemic will never be easy, following these tips should help employers and employees come through their present challenges stronger than ever.
01 April 2021
HR News Article