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Managing burnout back in the physical workplace

Managing burnout back in the physical workplace

Burnout has been one of the most talked about organisational topics throughout the pandemic. As business and government press for a return to office life, the organisations that stand the best chance of successfully managing burnout will be those that recognise what has happened to their people while they’ve been away. There’s a lot more behind the problem than workload.

This article has been written to help organisations and their leaders understand the context surrounding burnout as we reach 18 months since the start of the pandemic. It also contains a number of tips to support employees at a time when many are still unsure whether they want to return.

The impact of the pandemic on burnout

Burnout is exacerbated by the stresses of being in a pandemic. Before the pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It’s certainly occupational, but, thanks to remote and hybrid working, the actual workplace has changed. People have been working out of sight, managing their work around their personal responsibilities. This has worked well for many, but for others, this hidden world has masked financial and family stresses and a drive to work even harder due to anxieties around job security.

Change fatigue and mental and emotional overload are all psychological impacts of a pandemic and are also contributors to burnout - which is why the prevalence of burnout has significantly increased throughout the pandemic. Distancing from colleagues, lack of community and the dilution of the meaning many sought from their careers only adds to levels of anxiety.  What’s more, our 24/7 ‘always on’ world often makes it impossible to switch off from much of this.

So, while employers may be looking forward to the return of an invigorated workforce, the reality may be very different. Adjusting back to office based work patterns is going to be a struggle for many, which is where leadership has a role to play.

The language of leadership

Returning to a physical workplace can increase or reduce burnout depending on peoples’ experiences during the pandemic. While some may welcome a return to the office, or a hybrid mix, those that found remote working worked well for them may be feeling anxious about giving up their flexibility, particularly if employers take a tough stance on work routines.

So, for leaders, the use of language is critical. They will have their own feelings about returning to the office and they need to be careful to hold a balanced view. Those who are feeling particularly excited about getting back need to be careful not to project that excitement too much. That risks leading their teams to think that being in the office is what is implicitly expected, even if official messages say otherwise.

How leaders can help

Lookout for the physical signs: Line managers in particular need to be aware of this. People experiencing burnout are often in denial of the problem, so it takes others to spot the signs to be able to help, or suggest that help is sought. Burnout can be evidenced by a lack of energy, the compulsion to work a lot (even if it’s not urgent or critical), a decline in productivity, displays of impatience and being overly critical of others. Another sign can be indifference shown to work, even when things appear to have gone well.

Discuss and plan as a team: Before you return to the office, take time to discuss the situations and tensions within the team, work through some ’Team Agreements’ as you return which could include respecting different perspectives or other peoples’ time boundaries. Working back in a physical workspace means old team dynamics and potential conflicts may resurface. You’ll find some helpful tips in our recent article ‘Resetting your boundaries when back in the workplace’.

Give people time to adjust: Think about a phased return or a period where people can come in when they want to, gradually ramping up to the organisation’s ’norm’. Remember, remote working has worked well for many and lives now fit around it. A heavy handed approach to office work patterns won’t be appreciated and may add to anxiety levels.

Address problems in advance: For some, time away has caused issues to fester, creating tension between the individual and the organisation that is stressful. For example, aside from workload, perception of unfair practices around reward systems contributes to burnout, especially without the ability to address them. Try to address these problems before they are brought back into the workplace and may affect others.

De-stigmatise mental health: How often have we heard the phrase ‘it’s OK to not be OK’? Now is the time to make sure employees feel able to discuss the stresses that contribute to burnout openly. Recently we’ve seen reports of ‘a new phenomenon of ‘Pleasanteeism’. A recent survey claims that over half (51%) of UK workers feel under pressure to put on a brave face in front of their colleagues. Many are concerned about their levels of stress being visible to others. Without an open dialogue about mental health and leadership support, the topic of burnout and the issues surrounding it won’t get the attention it needs to be tackled.

Provide wellbeing and coaching support: Some employers are offering onsite health services (physical and psychological therapies) and increasing coaching capacity to help people navigate and adjust as they return. They are also investing in the development of managers and leaders to help them support their teams whilst not burning out themselves. These initiatives depend on available resources but are good examples of what can be done to proactively manage burnout.

Burnout and the ‘Great Resignation’

One final warning to organisations that don’t get this right. According to research by the World Economic Forum, up to 40% of the global workforce are re-considering their career options as a result of the pandemic; failure to offer flexible working being a main driver. Having worked from home for over a year, many want to remain working flexibly and are fully aware they can do this anywhere. Organisations that underestimate their employees' options and fail to create an employee proposition that respects wellbeing and manages burnout risk a talent drain.

Conclusion

Without careful management, the return to a physical workspace risks seeing levels of burnout, much of which has been masked by remote working, become even more damaging. The choice is simple - proactively manage the issue or risk talent either moving elsewhere or coming back to work already burned out when productivity will be more important than ever.

Further reading

From the Monkey Puzzle blog: The denial phase of burnout that no-one talks about

Take the test: Monkey Puzzle’s Burnout Self-Test, with guidance on results


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