How managers can recognize burnout remotely

Welcome to The Broadside, a careers newsletter. Here’s what to expect in this issue. Broadside writer Kristine Gill offers advice from managers on how to recognize burnout among staff, even when working remotely. Then, scroll on for job opportunities from HBO Max, Whole Foods, Penguin Random House, and more. A […]

Welcome to The Broadside, a careers newsletter. Here’s what to expect in this issue.

Broadside writer Kristine Gill offers advice from managers on how to recognize burnout among staff, even when working remotely. Then, scroll on for job opportunities from HBO Max, Whole Foods, Penguin Random House, and more.


A few weeks ago, I was telling my mom about all the freelance writing I had to tackle that weekend when I started crying. My mom had been trying to tell me she thought I was overdoing it with side work, and this time at least, she was right.

I’m not alone. According to a study by O.C. Tanner, 79 percent of employees experience burnout, and women more so than men. Non-managers are also more likely than their bosses to feel the pressure.

It all got me thinking: Is burnout inevitable, or can we avoid it? And how can your manager help? I realized it all comes down to recognizing the symptoms of burnout in the first place. And amid a pandemic, that’s compounded with remote work. So I talked to a few managers and a therapist about how to recognize and curb this all-too-common workplace plague.

Know the signs

Most of us recognize the signs of burnout in ourselves, but it can be harder to recognize burnout in others. A snippy comment or a drop in productivity might easily be chalked up to an individual’s personality or skillset, so it’s important to dive deeper.

Camille Drachman, a therapist and trauma expert, works at Sierra Tucson, an addiction treatment center in Arizona.

“It can show up in poor work performance or morale, in our behavior and relationships,” she said. “And more specifically as fatigue, exhaustion, or employees calling out sick more often. People might be irritable or angry or have difficulty completing tasks. Cynicism is a really strong sign, and avoidance of dealing with difficult tasks or topics.”

Compounding our workloads and the stress of going remote, many are feeling unsafe at work, Drachman said, both in terms of their job stability amid layoffs and furloughs and with worries about contracting COVID from their workplace if they’re attending in person. In fact, a recent survey by FlexJobs showed that employees were three times as likely to report burnout now than before the pandemic.

“Burnout is already pretty common, and it’s going to be more widespread seven months into this,” Drachman said.

Get a pulse on the situation

Back in March when managers at Twilio, a cloud-based communications platform service based in San Francisco, were anticipating growing pains as their staff switched to remote work, they began to survey their 3,200 employees.

“This was all new then, and we heard people were experiencing high degrees of stress,” said chief people officer Christy Lake. “They were just not able to focus, and they were looking for help and support.”

The first company-wide survey was on the topic of wellbeing. Results were as predicted: Work-life balance had suddenly been upended.

Lake also started monitoring Slack more closely, seeing lots of communication about how everyone was trying to cope.

“It was helpful just having feet on the proverbial street,” Lake said.

By April, Twilio had unrolled a slew of resources: training for managers and employees on burnout, a new caregivers leave policy and no-meeting Fridays. And it all began with listening to employees.

Drachman said listening works on two fronts.

“It’s not only giving managers insight, it’s also helping employees feel heard,” she said.

Slack is one way to keep tabs. Ideally, your company already has a good culture of communication in place to make this effective. If you don’t use Slack, Lake suggests having small-group conversations with and without direct managers so teams can express their concerns among peers.

At Webprofits, an Australian digital marketing company, managing director Paul Sprokkreeff began a buddy check system, where each employee must meet with two other team members for at least 15 minutes once a week.

“The rules: no talk about work and no talk about COVID where possible,” Sprokkreeff said. “It’s about creating a space for personal only connections. Importantly, it also shares the responsibility and enables a peer-to-peer checkins to flag any individuals that need extra support.”

Keep in mind that even if you haven’t heard from staffers who say they’re experiencing burnout, the problem likely exists.

A March poll by Maestro Health showed 69 percent of respondents had suffered from burnout as a result of their job and Millennials more so at 74 percent compared to just 56 percent of Boomers. Media and healthcare workers experienced the highest levels of burnout.

Time off

If you’re like me, the first solution to burnout is time off. Of course, during COVID-19, travel is limited, and staycations aren’t as enticing with the world on pause. In fact, some employees are compounding their own stress by hoarding paid time off, saving it for a time when a vacation can feel like a true break or feeling guilty about using it when workloads have changed and increased.

That was case at Online Optimism, a digital marketing company based in New Orleans. Operations coordinator Sara Bandurian noticed that staffers weren’t taking their paid time off. Bandurian said her team is working on ways to encourage their staff of 23 employees to use their time off.

“People are more likely to feel guilty taking time off right now,” Bandurian said.

So when the company learned through their pets Slack channel that one of their employees had to put her dog down, they offered her a mental health day.

“We have unlimited sick days, so we gave her one of those paid days as a mental health day,” Bandurian said. “It was last-minute, unscheduled, and she just needed an extra day.”

You can do the same for your staff.

Sprokkreeff offered a company-wide mental health day at Webprofits this year, to much enthusiasm. Reflektive, a software management company, began a monthly company-wide mental health day, said Rachel Ernst, chief human resources officer.

And Lake’s company began a caregivers leave program. The program allows caregivers of any sort—those caring for children, spouses, parents—to take up to two weeks of additional paid time off as they juggle online learning for their children and a litany of errands that now interfere with their work-from-home life. Late in August, Twilio announced it would up that leave policy to four weeks and roll out a $500 stipend for caregivers now paying for tutoring, nannying, etc. And the leave policy is casual compared to normal paid time off.

“It’s very simple: You can just grab that code, connect with manager, and off you go,” Lake said. “It’s not as formal as perhaps a medical leave of absence where a third party is approving a leave request.”

The response has been great, Lake said, pointing to survey results. Employees said they’re better able to manage their work-life balance and that has reduced stress.

Drachman warns that severe burnout can’t be fixed with a simple three-day weekend. Instead, think of the recovery from burnout being equal to the time you’ve spent battling the symptoms. If you’ve been burnt out for a month or two, it might mean unloading and de-stressing over the next two months to get into a better mindset.

“That’s a good barometer,” Drachman said. “It’s going to be something like three-day weekends for a while.”

Change things up

Of course, time off isn’t the only solution to burnout. Sometimes, changing responsibilities, allowing for more flexibility, and decreasing your employees’ workloads can work wonders.

Twilio instituted no-meetings Friday following their surveys on wellbeing. The company-wide rule allowed for more heads-down work on Fridays and more flexibility for hours on that day.

“We knew the only way to provide some relief this way would be to do it from the top down,” Lake said of no one-off rules on a team-by-team basis. “It’s really helped to provide some calendar relief.”

At Online Optimism, interns have started working, providing a welcomed break for full-time staffers who can now unload some of their work, Bandurian said.

Folks at Talend, a software company based in Redwood City, Calif., began mental health seminars, and CEO Christal Bemont gave her personal cell phone out to all 1,300 employees to encourage them to reach out with any concerns related to mental health. She also began allowing employees to focus on passion projects, and said doing so made everyone more excited about their jobs and more eager to perform well.

“One of the passion projects is applying our software to help those on the front lines fighting COVID,” Bermont said. “Staff found this project particularly rewarding.”

Plus, you’ve likely heard of happy hours, trivia, and the occasional llama Zoom visit, but have you given it a shot?

Bandurian made it her mission to add these fun activities to the list, and upped the game by scheduling on-the-clock visits to a New Orleans art installation for staff. The exhibit accepts groups of six at a time. She also began sending bottles of champagne to employees who closed sales and deliverable baked-goods for staffers’ birthdays.

Learning from burnout

Ideally, as burnout subsides you’ll notice happier, more productive employees. Drachman said it’s important to check in to be sure. At Twilio, Lake has conducted follow-up surveys to get a good read.

But because burnout ebbs and flows, it’s important to continue to maintain the offerings put in place during COVID, once the pandemic ends.

“The thing we’ll take away from all of this is flexibility,” Lake said. “That’s the number one thing we’ve learned and heard. Focusing more on impact and outcomes and less on input and face time.”

Lake has a prediction too: She believes the COVID-19 pandemic will be the end of tech’s perk war as flexible work-from-home policies and childcare services take priority over in-office massages and kombucha on tap, aiming to help prevent employee burnout.

“Furthering the integration between work and life has positively impacted our staff,” she said.

— Kristine Gill

ASNF

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