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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, employee burnout was an epidemic.
A 2018 Gallup survey found that 67% of employees felt burned out, and that was when employees could -- for the most part -- leave their work behind at the end of the day and enjoy some semblance of work-life balance.
Preventing employee burnout became more difficult as many employees transitioned to remote work. No longer separated from the office by a commute, many felt pressured to prove their worth by being constantly connected and "on."
A Monster Worldwide poll found that burnout symptoms increased by 35% from May to July last year among remote workers. Symptoms included flagging productivity, low energy and physical manifestations such as headaches and stomach problems.
Here's a deeper look at what causes employee burnout and what employers can do to alleviate it.
What's causing employee burnout
The causes of employee burnout are more complicated and difficult to solve during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before 2020, workplace factors largely contributed to employee burnout, said Adam Weber, chief people officer at Emplify, an employee engagement software company located in Fishers, Ind. These included poor manager relationships, a staggering workload, not enough goal support and lack of role clarity.
The pandemic brought new factors that can lead to burnout. Here's just a partial list of factors:
- COVID-19-related concerns;
- financial worries;
- homeschooling difficulties;
- lack of time to relax; and
- other stressors from working at home alongside partners, children and pets.
Adam WeberCo-founder and chief people officer, Emplify
"In the midst of a pandemic, recharging is harder than ever because many of the things that were once restorative, like travel and visiting family and friends, are no longer available," Weber said.
In late 2020, Emplify surveyed 1,000 of its remote employees, all of whom started working from home last spring. The company found that more than half of those employees took less time off since the shift to remote.
How technology causes, and alleviates, burnout
Technology makes it possible to work from home, but it also contributes to employee burnout.
The expectation of constant connectivity and video burnout are particularly toxic stressors.
Chat and collaboration apps, e-mail and even video conferences can increase productivity and engagement, but companies can also use them too much, said Diane Schwartz, CEO of Ragan's Workplace Wellness Insider, a subscription service that covers topics including human resources.
"Zoom is a blessing and a curse," Schwartz said.
Video conferencing initially helped people connect during the pandemic through video meetings, happy hours and other virtual events, she said. But now audio calls are gaining popularity because of a feeling of video overload.
Despite vaccine rollouts, a number of modern stressors will continue, and business and HR leaders should take them seriously. To that end, here are some other strategies employers can use to prevent burnout.
Ask employees -- and take action
Organizations should start by reaching out to employees.
Emplify leaders used the company's employee engagement survey platform to take the workforce's pulse in May 2020. Its employees needed official time off, according to the data.
"[Encouraging them to] take a break when they needed it [wasn't enough]," Weber said.
Emplify gave its employees every Friday off for a month, he said. Because everyone was off-duty, employees didn't have to manage emails and chats, which helped alleviate the feeling of constant connectivity.
Use behavioral analytics
Preventing workplace problems before they even occur can be the best strategy.
Employers can use behavioral analytics to prevent employee burnout by identifying it before it happens, said Janelle Owens, HR director at Test Prep Insight, an exam prep company. Organizations may find gathering data difficult, so they'll likely need to use AI-driven software tools to measure employee engagement. These tools gather and analyze employee communication on Zoom, email and Slack, among others.
Test Prep Insight uses Erurdit AI, which identifies trends and keywords in messages, then runs data through an algorithm to identify at-risk employees.
"This technology has been an immense help for us throughout the pandemic, ensuring none of our employees trend toward burnout as remote work wears on," Owens said.
Use reminder features
In some cases, the remote work platforms that can contribute to stress can also be used to prevent employee burnout.
For example, remote scheduling systems often have reminder features, said Jon Hill, CEO and chairman of The Energists, an executive search firm based in Houston. Companies can set up reminders for employees to take regular breaks.
Employers can also use the feature to make sure employees aren't working more than their contracted number of hours, Hill said. Companies that track time can use that same system to examine how much work team members are putting in. They can keep a particularly close eye on high performers and salaried employees who won't receive automatic compensation for their extra time.
Align technology with company culture
Tech tools like behavior analytics and AI have limitations just like any other software or system.
The tools can help identify trends and the employees at risk for burnout, but they also need to fit in with the organization's culture and structure, said Marie-Helene Pelletier, an independent work psychologist and executive coach. For example, there may be stigma attached to using particular tools. Employers will need to address that or pursue other strategies.
Offer de-stressing options
Even before the pandemic, many employers -- especially those concerned with being a "best place to work" -- offered comprehensive wellness programs to help workers combat stress.
HR leaders can get creative about the stress-reduction programs they propose. For example, wellness tech, such as mindfulness apps, can help employees create islands of peace through the day. And some companies target one of the top stressors for many workers by offering financial wellness programs.
Create a burnout dialogue
The best strategy for preventing employee burnout is to create a culture where employees can speak openly about burnout with their managers.
"Pretending burnout isn't happening will only make it worse," Weber said.
Companies need to acknowledge that burnout happens, then foster employee-manager dialogue.
"The sad reality of the current workforce is, if you suspect an employee is suffering from burnout, they probably are," Weber said.