Help Individual Contributors Before They Burn Out

Feeling stuck at home, maxing on screen time, lacking social interactions, and hitting the wall of Zoom is contributing to severe burnout. And what’s more, while burnout is rising at all levels, we found individual contributors to be 3x more likely than their managers to feel burned out right now. 

Gina Kim
/
June 24, 2020

We’ve all seen the headlines: a vast majority of workers who went remote in response to the pandemic, want the option to stay remote, at least part of the time.  Yet, in our Return to the Office survey, we found that working virtually in today’s conditions isn’t all rosy.  Feeling stuck at home, maxing on screen time, lacking social interactions, and hitting the wall of Zoom is contributing to severe burnout. And what’s more, while burnout is rising at all levels, we found individual contributors to be 3x more likely than their managers to feel burned out right now. 

To better understand why individual contributors in particular are burning out at such a high rate, we interviewed a number of clients to hear how they’re coping and feeling. 

“Because I am home all the time, I’m expected to work and be responsive any time. I am always in working mode and end up working continuously.” - Manager, Big 5 Bank 
“With everything going on in the world and the lockdown here in the city, I feel anxious and exhausted all the time. I get emails from my work about how they are supporting the employees through this, such as giving us flexibility to take time off while also requiring that we use our PTO. I just wish they would provide more material and concrete help.” - Associate, Big 4 Accounting Firm

Most of the people we talked to expressed that they’re finding it hard to recreate a boundary between their working and personal lives. Young professionals in particular have struggled to define their “cut off” and feel uncomfortable pushing back on the longer hours and shifting expectations of their availability. Many even mentioned a growing resentment of their colleagues with kids who they see as being granted more flexibility, while those without children feel their perceived free time is often viewed as available for work. 

“The line between my work life and personal life has blurred since the COVID crisis started. Because there is nowhere to go outside of work, people expect me to be on all the time. Meetings get pushed later into the night and earlier in the morning. And it is very easy to work overtime because of my lack of personal commitment outside of work.”  - Associate, Big 4 Accounting Firm

How leaders can help 

These problems are happening on a wide scale. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found, more than a third of working Americans reported chronic work stress, with less than half saying their employer provides sufficient resources to help employees manage their stress. 

Preventing burnout goes beyond policies and support infrastructure; leaders need to consider their role in preventing and reversing burnout: 

1. Pay close attention to your team to understand how they’re feeling

High engagement levels and wellbeing do not always go together. Individuals can feel highly stressed while also being engaged, but they may well be on their way to burnout. Watch for people who just don’t seem like themselves - a change in the way they interact or their frustration levels can be telltale signs of stress. We even suggest an open and honest exploration as a team about how everyone copes with stress differently to help you and the team recognize when people are acting from a place of stress. 

2. Have 1:1s to start drawing boundaries 

Through one-one-one meetings, managers are able to understand the signs so they can take action before it gets worse. One of the most effective things managers can do is support employees to take the time they need to recover from burnout. Letting people unplug from work and focus on their health is the first step. But as remote working drags out, you and your team need to set norms and  boundaries. It’s up to employees (and their managers) to establish boundaries and realistic expectations. 

3. Open up as a team

As a leader, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by your team’s stress. Thing is, it doesn’t all need to be on your shoulders. With the team, explore how everyone is really feeling and open a conversation about what everyone needs right now. As team members start to understand how each are doing, their empathy will increase, as will their desire to help and support one another.

This is an incredibly hard moment for everyone - one that is stretching out far longer than most of us expected. How you support your team through this moment will be crucial to their wellbeing, their overall contributions, and their longevity on your team.

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