Crucial tools? Empathy, communication, autonomy and recognition: Expert
Understandably, many workers these days are feeling stressed, whether it’s being on the front lines of the pandemic, facing uncertain job prospects or adapting to working from home.
But there are a number of ways employers and HR professionals can help to manage these feelings while keeping workers engaged and productive, according to an HR expert.
Canadian HR Reporter spoke with Michael Daniels, assistant professor of organizational behaviour and HR division at UBC Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, about some strategies.
Q: How big of a problem is burnout today?
A: “It’s a huge problem. I’ve seen surveys where 45 per cent of employees are experiencing burnout since the pandemic began, which is a lot because it’s a chronic experience; nine months is a long time for that to build up. We’re pretty resilient when it comes to short-term stressors and shocks in the workplace, but we’re much less resilient when we’re pushing a year now.
“With health-care workers and frontline employees who are interacting with the public every day, they have this added constant burden of the fear and anxiety of getting sick, and maybe taking the virus to their older family members or those who are more susceptible. There’s some recent research showing that frontline employees who are more anxious about their physical health end up reporting all sorts of negative outcomes with their health that are unrelated to COVID. Having to suppress their emotions all the time, and having to worry a lot, has measurable impact.
“Most of the rest of employees who are working from home or some kind of split home-work arrangement, they also have a lot of issues themselves. There’s recent research that shows that … when they experienced disruptions to their work routine, they’re more emotionally exhausted. Even if they could get a good night’s rest, the next day we’re still seeing an increase in withdrawal behaviours, meaning they might start later, they might end earlier, they might not be fully present and engaged psychologically in their work and that’s just a way for them to preserve their resources.
“It has a measurable impact on both health and well-being but also productivity and job performance.”
Q: How can employers strive to prevent employee burnout?
A: “There’s a few factors we want to consider. The first is making employees feel that they’re socially supported from leaders and from colleagues, really taking extra steps to check in with employees to communicate and to make them feel connected and supported, that’s a huge thing.
“You see lots of isolation and loneliness — especially for employees who are working from home — so offering that support is important. Let them know if they have any concerns about resources, that those tools [are] available. But also there’s that emotional connection that a lot of folks are missing out on.
“The second is providing more job autonomy: Giving employees the discretion as to when and how they accomplish their tasks; it’s a way for them to regulate their own resources. Burnout is a chronic depletion of resources, and nobody’s better able to judge their energy level than employees themselves.
“If you can provide more autonomy — flexible start times, flexible end times, flexible breaks and really how they engage in the task — it allows them to regulate their own energy levels. There’s a sense of powerlessness that a lot of people are experiencing now and [it’s about] allowing them to take back some control when they feel like they don’t have otherwise.
“The third piece is workload. Workloads have generally increased since the pandemic began, just because we have to do things differently. Now that we’ve had to reorganize everything, workloads have gone up and layoffs have also impacted many organizations. [It’s about] being mindful of ‘Are there tasks that are less essential that we can cut out or at least reduce? And if not, can we stretch out that workload for employees?’ It’s not always possible for every organization, but oftentimes there are some things that we can relax.”
Q: How can employers help workers suffering from pandemic burnout?
A: “If you have an employee who’s struggling with burnout, check in with them, make them feel connected. Work breaks are maybe an obvious solution but they work really, really well; they don’t have to be entire days off, even if you can give them the opportunity to have downtime in the middle of the day.
“If it’s a frontline employee, [give] them a chance to go back in the break room or something. Short breaks can actually do wonders because burnout builds up over time and if you can have that little pressure release throughout the day, that can be really useful.
“Sometimes employees just need time off to rest to alleviate the burnout that’s been accumulating over so many months.”
Q: How important is communication?
A: “It’s crucial. The pandemic has made communication more difficult for many employees, but also more important. There needs to be some extra communication that helps employees connect and understand they’re supported. It’s a way to feel connected to your employers; a lot of people are pretty isolated again. That’s the role of good leaders, being empathetic [and] follower-oriented.
“A lot of times leaders have a tendency during times like this to focus on problems and the business, and ‘What steps do we need to take to change our business model or change the way we operate our stores?’ But we have to remember that they’re also playing the role of emotional leaders for their employees.”
Q: What about providing more recognition such as food deliveries or gift cards?
A: “I wouldn’t say that those are bad ideas, it’s a good idea to recognize, especially some form of extra recognition [but] they shouldn’t be replacements for good leadership and communication and opportunities for social connection — those are things that are going to have a measurable impact. [It’s about] showing recognition in some way that you realize employee’s workloads are higher, and stress is higher, and you empathize with it, and maybe talking about our shared values.
“To have the biggest impact… offer bonuses: A lot of people are missing out on household income, even if the employees are still employed. To the degree that you can do that, it’s really helpful, it’s just not a replacement.”
A lot of employees are reporting they’ve run out of steam compared to one year ago, found a recent survey.
While stress and anxiety are high, physical problems are also being manifested during the pandemic.