How to Avoid Employee Burnout

/ Christine Andrukonis

We hate to break it to you (and to ourselves), but summer is coming to an end.

Like the rest of 2020, it was an unusual season, to say the least. And now, suddenly the weather is changing and we’re sending the kids off to school (or into their Zoom classrooms) with hand sanitizer and a prayer. On the professional side, the fall often brings a new onslaught of work and heated expectations to meet end-of-year-goals. Add to this the fact that since everyone is continuing to experience VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — employee burnout is a significant threat. As we head into the fall, be on the lookout for what we like to call the ‘September Slump.’

While this transition has always been challenging to navigate, regardless of the year, with the ongoing slog of living in a COVID-19 state, the pressures of a unique back-to-school environment, and shorter, colder days all piling on top of workplace stress and responsibilities, mental health has become a big concern. The September Slump impacts the overall fatigue and productivity of your talent, and it can create a negative trend that overtakes your culture.

The good news is that there are a few small, yet meaningful things you can do to keep your people feeling motivated, inspired and supported. Here are some ideas to fight against the September Slump:

Have a thorough check-in with your team.

To assess employee burnout, you need to be deliberate about connecting with your team members. Leaders at every level should create a calendar block for their direct-reports that allows for a generous discussion. Each of us is navigating new ways of living, adapting to the latest mandates, and finding ways to cope with the heightened anxiety. And we all want to be understood as full humans. Here’s what leaders can do.

  • Find out what’s working — and what might need to change.

Middle-managers are being hit particularly hard during the pandemic. They are struggling to keep up with their own duties, while also managing complex schedules for their teams, competing for leadership’s time and attention, and guiding their teams through all kinds of uncertainty and stress. It’s a lot to handle, and they may need more support than you realize. New hires may also be struggling to find their way at a company whose office they’ve never technically visited before. Fostering relationships and camaraderie is tricky when you’re fresh to any new position, but it is even more challenging in a remote-work scenario with no end date.

These, among others, are perfect examples to see where you can make a change as a leader. Is there room in the budget for freelance or contract help that can remove some of the responsibilities from a manager’s plate? Are there ways to buddy up new hires with veterans to create a Zoom mentorship? Now is the time to get creative and put strategies into action.

  • Take stock: what should you start, stop, and continue doing?

Take some time to find out: What has worked well for your people over the past several months? What work habits, team norms, and meeting times are working most efficiently for the greatest number of people? What might need to change as schedules shift for fall, or as people feel the unexpected long-term strain of remote working? As a team, take a hard look at the way you work together. What types of things would your people like to start, stop, and continue through the winter, so that you can all be at your best, both individually and collectively?

  • Make a long-term plan for team norms.

Unfortunately, no map details exactly when COVID-19 will no longer be a threat to communities. While many professionals and teams feel like they’re holding their breath for the first moment of relief, that strategy won’t withstand forever. Instead, it’s smarter to make a plan, together, to implement long-term ways of working and team norms that are rooted in respect, communications, and well, common sense. To combat workplace stress, managers must lead the charge, prioritize their people’s mental health, and model calm and balance to make their staff feel understood in this chaotic time.

Be intentional about making employees feel valued.

In 2020, companies have asked a lot out of their people: be flexible, log longer hours to make up for a smaller staff, adapt quickly, set up your at-home office, care for your extended family and the mental health of your team while doing your “regular job,” and the list goes on. As we approach the seven-month mark of the pandemic in the U.S., it’s important to continue recognizing those who are making it work. This is an effective and impactful way to avoid employee burnout during the September Slump.

  • Celebrate personal and professional milestones.

Before COVID-19, part of the fun of being in an office was the ability to celebrate with your colleagues. Whether it was a new promotion or the happy news of a new baby, employees often rally together to honor these milestones. Creating this same excitement isn’t as easy when you’re stationed at your individual homes, but it’s still necessary. Encourage managers and provide room in the budget – and the meeting schedule — to celebrate and offer gifts for these life changes.

  • Continue career conversations.

Much like the engaged couples of 2020 who reminded us that ‘love isn’t canceled,’ it’s up to leadership to reiterate that career advancement isn’t either. Encourage managers to set aside time with all team members to discuss their experiences and aspirations, develop timelines for meeting short and long-term goals, and provide transparency into the promotions process. Remind employees that career growth isn’t always vertical, and there are many skills to be gained through a lateral move, especially if it’s out of their comfort zone. Work with your people to create meaningful development plans that will serve them well no matter where their careers take them, and no matter when the pandemic passes.

  • Send a handwritten thank you note or gift to team members.

No matter how many laps around the sun we complete, there’s something special about receiving good old fashioned snail mail. And in a time when the United States Postal Service needs our support more than ever, you can fulfill two needs by sending a note or a gift to all employees. This may take the form of a gift card to a local coffee shop or a ‘spa day at-home’ care package that includes all of the necessities to release personal and workplace stress. Since you won’t be hosting an end-of-year gala this year, consider using this fund to spread a little cheer during the September Slump.

Help employees manage work-life balance.

There is no perfect balance between the demands of our professional roles and our personal responsibilities. Though it’s true for all team members, parents right now are existing on fumes, as they care for and teach their kids, and then somehow, still make meetings and deadlines. Leadership should make it a priority to support their staff through this strange period.

  • Encourage paid time off. 

It’s simple: Employee burnout happens when employees don’t have time to disconnect and/or give energy to their families. Though many schools around the nation have opened up or will be opening soon, it’s estimated that most of them will close again, as COVID-19 cases increase. Because of this, working parents may feel on edge, waiting for the next shoe to drop, causing them to be distracted. A week off to adjust could be a game-changer for them. And the same is true for other members on their team who don’t have children but have been caring for elderly relatives, managing the household, or simply picking up slack for others at work during their time of crisis. Managers should encourage paid time off, and leadership should consider offering more vacation or PTO days to benefit their teams.

  • Track employees’ workloads to help them manage stress.

By asking the right questions and creating an outlet for support, managers can determine how each employee handles the September Slump. Everyone will present ‘symptoms’ differently: some will withdraw from meetings, others will miss deliverables, and others will seem agitated or disconnected. The more managers understand their team’s workload, the better they can provide strategies that help them balance workplace stress.

  • Provide access to mental health tools and resources.

Last — but definitely not least — take a stance on mental health by providing your employees with easy access to resources. Your Human Resources leaders can create a directory of links to employee mental health benefits, as well as helpful tools like Headspace. By highlighting and promoting these offerings, you help take away the stigma and give employees the green light to prioritize their health.

Taken to the extreme, the dreaded “September Slump” can quickly turn into what health professionals are calling the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – a widespread mental health crisis that can manifest as depression, anxiety and despair. Make sure you’re doing all you can to help your employees manage their stress levels, so they can navigate yet another transition and still remain productive, healthy and engaged.

Categories: Leadership