Are pressures related to COVID-19 creating a pandemic of burnout among your employees?


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought massive uncertainty to South African and global businesses. Has the degree of uncertainty and stress that permeates daily life created a scenario in which your employees are at huge risk of burnout? What can we do to change this situation?

Employees succeed at remote work – but at a very high price

Listen to psychologist James Gower share his views about why the risk of a burnt-out workforce is more real than ever before. What do we all need to know to take care of our mental and physical health at this challenging time and recognise the signs of burnout before we suffer serious harm?

“Many South African employees have worked remotely, mostly from home, since the start of level five restrictions for COVID-19,” says Johannesburg-based psychologist James Gower. “They have had to overcome several obstacles in the process and become adept at multitasking between parenting, home-schooling and childcare, running the home while working from home, short work deadlines and, for many, an intense workload.”

People are burning the candle at both ends to prove that they are worth keeping

Most employees seem to have made a success of this situation in the short term. But their hard work has come at a very high price. “Research commissioned by LinkedIn, in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, found that three quarters of employees feel overworked,” adds James. “This has the potential to negatively impact employees’ mental health by causing burnout and anxiety. LinkedIn also surveyed office workers and found that up to 80% of employees – especially those working remotely – feel the need to prove that they are working hard and deserve to keep their jobs, should there be any talk of letting people go.”

“We’re all aware that many employees have taken a pay cut or retrenchment package as companies have cut back or closed their doors permanently.” With many employees fearing retrenchment, people are burning the candle at both ends to prove that they are worth keeping. James adds that, on average, those working from home are working nearly four additional days a month.

Employees feel the need to be online 24/7 and experience “ePresenteeism”

“Many of my patients who are employees feel that managers have begun to disregard working hours, emailing and making demands of them at all hours, while workloads have doubled or tripled. Employees feel that they need to be online and available as much as possible, but this results in a phenomenon known as ePresenteeism”, adds James. “This happens when employees feel like they should be seen to be online and available as much as possible, but in fact they are overworked, overstressed and far from engaged.”

Once employees return to work, the crisis is far from over

As COVID-19 alert level restrictions lessen and these exhausted employees return to the workplace, the risk of a burnt-out workforce is more real than ever before. While employees are scared of losing their jobs, employers are scared that employees are not doing enough work for them to survive the COVID-19 climate and its impact on the South African and global economies.

“Once employees return to work, the crisis is far from over,” adds James. “Already exhausted employees are expected to continue meeting harsh deadlines and what may be a challenging and hostile environment, where they feel threats to their health and their livelihood, and in which it’s all about the survival of the hardest worker.”

Recognise the warning signs of burnout

What do we all need to know to take care of our mental and physical health at this challenging time and recognise the signs of burnout before we suffer serious harm?

Every one of us has the responsibility to be aware of and to nurture our own physical and mental health and progression to burnout. “Overworking can be a real trigger to burnout,” explains James. “There is a limit to how many hours we can sustainably work in a day, before exhaustion takes over and we find ourselves unable to cope.”

“Recognise the signs that we may be burning out. One of the first signs is struggling to put things into perspective,” says James. “People on the road to burnout often feel a mounting sense of helplessness. Your mind can feel like it’s overloaded as you struggle to process endless thoughts. Once you reach exhaustion, it can be hard to find solutions to even minor problems.”

Those heading towards burnout might experience noticeable mood swings such as outbursts of anger or irritation. “You may put this down to being stressed. Left unchecked, long-term stress can lead to mental health issues, such as anxiety, panic attacks and depression.

“You may be on the road to burnout if you feel drained from the moment you wake up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night, if your job is all you can think about, and if you cannot take time to relax. Not giving yourself time to switch off drains the body of energy resources,” he adds.

You may experience physical effects like:

  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath

You might be afraid to delegate tasks even though you’re lacking energy. “It doesn’t matter if you’re passing work on to a highly competent team member or even to someone senior,” says James. “The thought of not having complete control at any moment in time strikes fear into you. You constantly check emails. Yes, working from home means you must be organised when it comes to communication with your teams. If, however, you check emails compulsively until late at night, you are not giving yourself the downtime you need.”

Employees, here’s how to ward off burnout

Whether employees are working from home or from the office, James has a few suggestions:

  • Make sure you work a 48-hour maximum working week. Take enough rest breaks and schedule downtime. Life really can’t be all about work. Learning to turn off worries requires effort, but certain practical and psychological techniques can help. Avoid working through your lunch break.
  • It’s tempting to think you can squeeze in more work by jumping out of bed and immediately logging in, but you shouldn’t always work during the time you would have spent commuting to work. Think about how you can use that time for your own wellbeing and enjoyment.
  • Speak to your manager or boss to find out which health-promoting resources are available to you and don’t be afraid to use them. Many businesses provide support for stress and personal problems through employee assistance programmes. They offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can help employees who feel emotional distress relating to family issues, work, addiction, and mental illness. Another option is to schedule an appointment with a psychologist or your GP to assist with issues you might be struggling with.
  • Know when to clock off. Employees should know which hours they are expected to be contactable and clear boundaries should be in place.
  • Trust your team. Trust your colleagues and co-workers to do the jobs they are trained to do. If you’re a manager, encourage open communication and offer support when needed.

Employers, here’s what you can do to help your people combat burnout

James has this advice for employers:

  • Be sympathetic and listen to problems staff may have.
  • Staff are overworked and stressed. Pace deliverables and deadlines.
  • Don’t micromanage and do not constantly check up on your workers. Trust that your team will do what is needed.
  • When workers can plan ahead, they can adjust their work pace, which will greatly help them prevent burnout.
  • Don’t give last-minute deadlines and have immediate, unrealistic expectations of staff to perform immediately, no matter the day or time. The situation we are in requires that managers and teams really focus on advanced planning to relieve stress and remove last-minute projects and deadlines.
  • Where possible, stay away from talk of retrenchment or dismissal and the idea that the hardest worker will survive. Rather encourage healthy working conditions and give support where needed.
  • Ease employees’ fears about returning to the workplace. Make sure procedures that minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 are in place and that workspaces are prepared to receive employees safely. This requires that the company follow government regulations for safety gear and equipment, as well as the regulations set for physical distancing. Have employees work in shifts and have different arrival times. Allow employees to work from home where possible.

“We know the economy has taken a knock, but our most valuable asset is our people. They are the ones who will help rebuild the economy. Employee assistance programmes are key to promoting employee wellbeing,” says James. “If both employees and companies work together, we can overcome the economic and financial stresses that COVID-19 has caused to individuals, companies, and the greater South Africa.

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID 19.

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