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Burnout: how it hurts, what can help

ILR School Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Vanessa Bohns recently answered questions about worker burnout, which has soared in the past year, and offered strategies to combat the “always on” syndrome exacerbated by the pandemic.

Burnout – can you describe its pre-pandemic roots and how it deepened during COVID-19?

Prior to the pandemic, a workplace culture had already begun to emerge where many employees felt the pressure to be “ideal workers.” This means many employees were already feeling more and more like we had to be constantly available to our employers and prioritize work over all else (e.g., rest, vacation, family). Being constantly connected to our devices exacerbated this tendency, and so the boundaries between work and non-work time were already beginning to blur, which can lead to burnout.

Then, the pandemic hit and many employees shifted to remote work, which amplified all of these pressures that were already there. Now, for many of us working remotely, there is no clear line between work and home. On top of that, many of us still feel that pressure to keep up with this ideal worker image, so we feel like we need to prove to our employers that we are actually working when we are working from home. That can lead us to feel like we are always “on,” which can lead to burnout, particularly when it’s been going on for this long.

Opportunities to get away and take a real vacation have been limited by COVID-19, and many of us haven’t had a real break or change of scenery for almost a year now. At this point, a certain monotony has set in for many of us. 

How does burnout manifest?

Burnout is essentially feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by work, often to the point where you stop caring and start to disengage. When we are burnt out, we feel ineffective, cynical and we may detach or stop caring about our work. There are also some emotional components that look similar to anxiety and depression, including anger and frustration. 

All of this obviously isn’t great for employee productivity. On the other hand, being able to switch off from work — e.g., in the evenings, or on the weekends — can protect employees from burnout, which can ultimately boost productivity.

How can organizations help prevent burnout?

One thing my collaborator, Laura Giurge, and I have been looking at is how much of the expectation to be “always on” is undue pressure that employees put on themselves because they mistakenly assume it’s what their employers, managers and colleagues expect from them. In actuality, most of us would be fine with a colleague waiting until the next morning to respond to an email we sent off at the end of the work day, or hearing back on Monday regarding a non-urgent issue that came up on Friday.

But when employers don’t make those expectations explicit, employees assume they have to sacrifice their weekends and evenings to address any work tasks that come up right away. We’ve found that explicitly stating that you don’t expect an answer until the next work day gives others the freedom to take the evening off, for example, and feel that they don’t have to respond right away. And having free time where you feel like you are truly able to take a break from work is key to battling burnout. So, employers can help by making explicit their expectation that employees will take evenings or weekends off, or take other breaks from work to recharge.

What strategies can help workers combat burnout?

Employees can help themselves by preserving boundaries wherever possible, like not working at night or on the weekends, so that there is clearly defined “free time.” Also, you can do things to help make your "free time" actually feel different, like putting on casual work clothes during the week and lounge clothes on the weekends, creating a space where you work that isn’t the same space where you relax, etc.

Also, when there’s no one there to pop into your office to ask if you want to grab a coffee, we often forget to take little breaks throughout the day. So, schedule those little coffee or walk breaks for yourself. The key is to carve out periods of time for recharging from work so you’re not constantly working, which you have to be a little more proactive about when you’re working from home.

It takes both parties — employers and employees — to prioritize downtime in order to battle burnout.

When the pandemic is over, remote work and burnout will continue for many. Thoughts?

One contributor to burnout that doesn’t tend to get as much attention as some of these other factors is loneliness. For a lot of people, the workplace is a key part of their social life. Yet, when everyday hallway banter is eliminated in lieu of emails and Zooms, the time we spend communicating with our work colleagues becomes more heavily goal-directed, rather than social and restorative.

As a number of companies consider maintaining this shift to remote work even after the pandemic, it’s important to think about strategies to prevent a long-term epidemic of loneliness, which can ultimately contribute to lasting burnout. Even ensuring that there are some days when people can still come into the office and interact with one another in person, or events where people can get together to socialize once the pandemic has abated, may help to alleviate this concern.

This story also appears on the ILR website.

Mary Catt is the ILR School’s communications director.

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