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Burnout Prevention and Recovery during COVID-19

March 26th, 2020

Steps Employers Can Take to Identify Burnout

While dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic protocol for social distancing, people are increasingly anxious, frustrated and fearful. In order to avoid another serious epidemic, we need to take a look at preventing workplace burnout and depression. Burnout has already been a looming issue for the workplace and is at risk of escalating quickly due to COVID-19 protocols mandating social distancing resulting in isolation, hyper-vigilance to germ avoidance and constantly changing conditions.

In my work as an emotional intelligence trainer and trauma-informed coach, I’m keenly aware that many employees are already at a breaking point. Let’s use this COVID-19 temporary “norm” as an opportunity to implement the most compelling and inexpensive antidotes to burnout stress.  

Defining Burnout

First, let’s understand how we are defining burnout. Burnout is chronically feeling exhausted, empty, pressured but unmotivated, hopeless and useless while masking and managing episodes of near breakdown. We swing from panicked to numb, hopefully feeling degrees of focus between the swings. Most of us have either experienced someone battling burnout or felt near the end of the rope ourselves. The World Health Organization has recently determined workplace burnout to be a serious issue to the point of naming it a disease.

Whether you’re struggling with burnout as you read this post, or care to understand it to support someone else, I hope you walk away with some tools to address it.

Where Does Burnout Come From?

Overly demanding job expectations (or perceptions thereof) + emotional isolation = burnout. Chronic stress can quickly override our “mental circuits.”  When we’re over-extended, scrambling to meet goals, and keeping up the pretense that all is well, we struggle daily to get ahead while falling behind, or perceiving we are. All of this leaves little time to tune into our emotional self. The ongoing state of being out of touch with how we feel puts us at risk. If on the job, we tend to tune out our emotions, maybe even use work to avoid them, we eventually feel numb and disconnected. Problem is, numbing out to negative emotions also tunes out the positive ones. And of course, we can’t manage what we’re disconnected from. 

Negative emotions stress us out physically and manifest in our behaviors, whether we like it or not. At some point, we lose our ability to manage our behaviors and suffer negative consequences in both our workplace and relationships. This downward spiral adds to our stress, eventually resulting in burnout. The bottom line is fear, often self-doubt, “Will I be valuable and acceptable if I can’t live up to all of this?” The deeply rooted fear of losing value, face, and position drives us further into panic depleting brain chemicals for focus. It’s a difficult road back to joy if we don’t have empathetic people understanding and reassuring us of our value. 

Three Burnout Antidotes for the Workplace

1. Building Belonging in Workplace Culture - Studies show a drop in absenteeism and an increase in retention when leaders are empathetic and provide a sense of belonging.

Empathy breaks emotional isolation. It is an ability to share another’s state of mind and yet stay true to your own. Empathy triggers oxytocin, the anti-stress chemical telling your nervous system that you’re safe and connected. 

As a higher brain relational phenomenon, it refreshes our energy-activating chemicals for connection and productivity. Empathy helps the whole brain work together resulting in greater creativity, problem solving, and healthy relationships for collaboration and innovation. Conversely, burnout locks the brain in a fight, flight or freeze mode inhibiting these higher brain functions. 

As you increase your empathy, your team will bond with you as well as take ownership of your company’s values and vision.  

2. Strengthening Social/Emotional Connectivity - There is hard science proving that we’re either strengthening or weakening people mentally and emotionally with our interactions. Affective-immunology is the science of how our personal interactions with others have a physical and an immunological impact. 

Be purposeful in reassuring coworkers of their value to your team and organization. Words as simple as, “I appreciate your work on this”, “I really like how you did that.” Or, “Good to hear your voice.” Or, “Is there anything I can do to support you?” These words when authentically spoken provide healthy dynamics for emotional and physical wellness. During a crisis like COVID-19, we can all use an immunological boost. Weekly if not daily, be sure to provide a steady diet of “affect immunology.” Imagine your team being immune to toxic stress because stressors are seen as opportunities for connection and understanding. 

Reducing the risk of burnout by building emotional connection takes vulnerability. It’s courageous to admit to ourselves the level to which we might struggle. The good news is, once leaders and coworkers take emotional connection seriously, the sense of belonging is a phenomenon that reduces stress. While this takes time, it tangibly impacts employees in their journey to wellness and success.

3. Promoting Work/Life Integration - Recognize that employees have personal demands on their lives and allow flexibility and support to the extent possible so that employees feel positioned to take care of both work and life demands. This simple act of recognition is highly bonding and employees who are bonded with their leaders are less stressed and are loyal to their workplace. 

Paying close attention to employees’ personal interests and lives, such as asking about their families, hobbies, and activities outside of work encourages them to bring their whole self to work each day. This is crucial. Mentally, they won’t check their “real” life at the door when they enter their workplace every day. Feeling seen as a whole person allows employees to integrate work and life, not just balance it as two separate entities pulling them in different directions. Integration is healthy and sends employees home stronger each day. 

As you can see, the ability to manage stress and avoid burnout is much more an emotional task than a cognitive one. Although we haven’t touched on balancing workload, which is obviously crucial, having the emotional security to communicate clearly when our workload isn’t manageable is more an emotional and cultural challenge than a cognitive one. Recognizing this human fact is the first step toward resolving workplace burnout. 

Together, let’s use this time to refocus and strengthen people like never before. While COVID-19 viral germs incubate for days before symptoms are evident, our emotional feedback loops are rapidly shared about 200 times per second. And, yes, this too is a contagion we can put to work to build our people up and protect them from burnout. This must-have contagion is the least expensive investment we can make with the greatest return. We can employ the most human approaches to increase outcomes and recover a robust economic trend!!

- By Sharon Kuhn, Executive Director for The Center for Empathy 

Categories & Tags Business Climate