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Ask an expert: how can HR help employees to manage pandemic burnout?

pandemic burnout

During the pandemic, continued periods of isolation, loneliness and social distancing have led 60% of people in the UK to find it hard to stay positive on a daily basis than before the pandemic. The rise of ‘pandemic burnout’ has left large swathes of employees feeling worn out and struggling to cope.

Recognising and supporting employees through any period of pandemic burnout is an increasingly novel challenge many leaders face, HR especially.

As such, we are delighted to welcome burnout expert, mental health at work trainer and qualified executive and leadership coach, Katie Phillips to the Natural HR blog today who will be sharing some insights on what pandemic burnout is, how to recognise it and how HR can support their employees through the pandemic and beyond.

NHR: Katie, could you tell us a bit more about the factors that are contributing to pandemic burnout?

Katie Phillips: “We’ve got all the usual (pre-March 2020) causes: excessive workload, not feeling fairly rewarded, strained relationships, doing work that’s not aligned with our values, not feeling our work has a solid purpose, not asking for help and support, and so on. But on top of this we have had 14+ months of pandemic ‘chaos’.

causes of pandemic burnout

“Restrictions meant that our usual coping mechanisms such as going to the gym, travel, hugs, etc. were removed for such a long time that the stress hormone, cortisol, has built up in our bodies. This physically and mentally wears us out. Then to add insult to injury, not only did we lose our coping mechanism, but we filled ‘free’ time with work as there was little else to do.

“For those with families, this was coupled with juggling home-schooling and work or for those living alone, it meant they perhaps didn’t see a single human in the flesh for months.

“And let’s not forget the working from home set up! The stress of new tech, uncomfortable workstations, weak WiFi, the constant video calls, the lack of boundaries between work and home… I could go on for days!

“Essentially, it’s a layer cake of different elements, each impacting every employee differently. Therefore, it’s important to speak openly about mental health, stress, and burnout with your team and then try to understand how it’s specifically affecting them so you can meet them where they are at.”

NHR: How has the pandemic affected employees?

KP: “Traditionally, employee wellbeing and engagement work in harmony. The more engaged people are, the less likely they are to burn out and the more productive they are able to be. I believe to start with, people were far more engaged in work than usual: crisis can have a rallying effect on teams. But the stress and worry that spiked in March 2020 is still lurking (even though it has decreased somewhat) and after 14+ months of this, exhaustion has set in.

“After all the ups and downs – good news, bad news – back and forth – it’s to be expected. Uncertainty kills our energy and it looks set to continue as we worry about the new normal, hybrid working, new COVID variants and possible side effects of vaccines. Employers need to be doing more than ever to care for their people and protect them from burnout.”

NHR: What are the signs and symptoms of pandemic burnout?

KP: “I don’t think the signs and symptoms are really any different, it’s just the triggers and context that has changed.

“The ultimate symptoms of burnout are:
– Exhaustion: physical, emotional and mental
– Depersonalisation: feeling cynical and detached from our work
– Lack of self-efficacy: feeling like we aren’t capable or good enough

“As for most things that challenge our mental wellbeing, people experience signs of burnout long before they hit the wall. I talk about them in more detail in this article and this post but the key ones are:

Physical symptoms:

– Trouble sleeping

– Nausea, gastritis and digestive issues

– Headaches and muscle aches

– Jaw grinding, eye twitches

– Breakouts and skin complaints

Emotional/Cognitive symptoms:

– Feeling low, lacking energy, brain fog

– Tearfulness and/or numbness

– Self-doubt and self-criticism

– Dreading work and feeling disengaged and/or anxious

Behavioural symptoms:

– Withdrawing from a colleague or loved ones

– Irritable and/or impatient

– Sensitive and/or defensive

– Working too much and trying to ‘prove self’

– Restlessness and difficulty ‘switching off’

“Not everyone will get all of these, and some will experience others – there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to mental wellbeing.  The key thing to remember is that you’re looking for changes to how you usually think, feel and act. Those changes are your warning signals.”

NHR: What can HR do to help employees during these testing times?

KP: “The most consistent complaint I hear from people in my workshops and 1:1 sessions is a lack of acknowledgement of the extra effort people have had to make and the impact that stress has on them. Leaders should be making sure their people feel seen and heard.

“This doesn’t need to be an extravagant event; people are often only looking for gratitude and appreciation. This can be done with a genuine thank you and praise for their efforts. This stands true with or without a pandemic!”

NHR: How can HR encourage employees to thrive mentally?

KP: “People are also really sick of being palmed off with free yoga classes and instructions to take a walk at lunchtime. I’ve written about the harm that well intentioned wellbeing perks can have on teams in this article but as we go back towards the ‘real world’ people are expecting deeper action and systemic change from leaders to support them to work healthily and productively.

“That means making sure that:

– roles and responsibilities are clear
– demands are reasonable
– they have sufficient control over their work
– good relationships are fostered and poor behaviour is managed
– that they are supported fully
– and that they are involved in any changes that affect them

how to combat pandemic burnout

“You can have all the wellbeing perks and initiatives you like but if these fundamentals aren’t well managed, the stress level will be high and this, if left untreated, will lead to burnout.

“And the worst thing is that people rarely take the symptoms of stress seriously and continue to work when ill. This is bad for the individual as it exacerbates their condition but also for the business. Research shows that lost productivity from presenteeism (i.e., working when sick or burned out) is 7.5 times greater than productivity loss from absenteeism. It’s a lose/lose situation.”

NHR: How can we, as individuals, avoid or remedy pandemic burnout?

KP: “The top ways to avoid and recover from burnout overlap so I have summarised the key ones. To avoid and recover from burnout I recommend:

– Rest: if you’re exhausted, stop pushing through
– Identify the sources of stress: unpick where it came from and the signs and symptoms you experienced as a result
– Reduce & remove stressors: distance yourself from the stressors asap
– Speak up and ask for support: to your manager, colleagues, coach or loved ones
– Take back control: prioritise only the essential work as you ease back in
– Establish clear boundaries: don’t let work take over your life, stick to hours, switch off

– Treat yourself with compassion: if you wouldn’t say it to someone else, don’t say it to yourself
– Prioritise wellbeing: sleep well, exercise, take breaks, get creative, go to therapy, connect to loved ones, laugh, cry…

“You need to prioritise your wellbeing consistently – even if it’s just a couple of minutes every day. All of the suggestions above will help you to complete your stress cycle and remove all the build-up of stress that is in your body. We must reduce and remove the stressors but also process the stress that they have caused if we are to stay healthy and burnout free.”


About Katie Phillips:

“I’m Katie. I’m a Burnout Expert, Mental Health at Work trainer and an ICF qualified Executive and Leadership Coach. I’ve managed communications, projects and supported leaders in international organisations – from Governments to StartUps – over the last 16 years. It’s safe to say I’ve seen and experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of mental wellbeing and work.

After 3 burnouts, it became obvious that the way I, and many others was working needed to change. So, I started unpicking the wobbly relationship of work and mental health. Now, I use practical frameworks to help ambitious but stressed out humans to balance professional success and mental wellbeing.

I do this with 1:1 coaching, group workshops and strategic consultancy. Aside from helping people avoid burnout, I’m a big fan of salty-buttered crumpets, 90s music and long, rambly walks. You can find out more about how I can support you or your business on my website or by emailing me on katie@kdp.coach. I also share expert interviews, tips and tools to stay healthy and happy in work in the Anti Burnout Bible.”

Website: www.kdp.coach
Instagram: @katiephill
Linkedin: Katie Phillips
The Anti Burnout Bible (monthly expert interviews): www.kdp.coach/the-anti-burnout-bible

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