Burnout is soaring during COVID-19: How can employers help?

Employee burnout has been alarmingly high for the past few years, but during COVID-19, it’s reached new levels of concern.

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When software company Limeade surveyed employees just months before the pandemic began, they found that 42% of workers were burned out. When they asked employees about burnout again, a few months into COVID-19, that number had shot up to 72%.

Lindsay Lagreid

“Almost half of our employees being burned out is already very concerning. But at that second point in time, we see almost three-quarters of employees reporting that they are burnt out. That is–I don’t have enough red flags to raise,” Lindsay Lagreid, senior advisor at Limeade’s Limeade Institute, said this week during the company’s virtual conference. “That’s very, very concerning. This is human suffering, this is substance abuse, this is stress impacting our physical health. This is people’s wellbeing suffering.”

Burnout–which research describes as when people are highly engaged over a long period of time without the personal skills and organizational support to maintain their wellbeing–has negative impacts on both a personal level and for the organization. For employees, it can result in lower productivity, health issues, substance abuse, heightened anxiety and depression. For organizations, burnout results in lower commitment, higher absenteeism and more turnover.

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Females, in particular, are struggling disproportionately with the pandemic, Limeade found. While 42% of males report extremely positive wellbeing, just 11% of females report extremely positive wellbeing. One reason is women’s caretaking nature, Lagreid said. With COVID-19, more women are homeschooling and taking care of their kids at home while also working remotely. But additionally, women are traditionally more empathetic and try to help out family, friends or coworkers during the pandemic, which in turn can burn them out faster.

Overall, scores of research show that mental health, stress and burnout have all skyrocketed due to COVID-19, as have concerns over getting sick, economic worries, taking care of family members and suffering from isolation, loneliness and unhealthy boundaries between work and home life. “All of this has been a huge burden on people,” Lagreid said.

Related: 10 strategies to improve employee mental health

It’s essential that organizations address this problem, added Christine Bilheimer, manager, customer success at Limeade.

Strategies can run the gamut, she said, from engaging with employees beyond work–for instance, start meetings by asking employees personal, fun questions or playing trivia–to encouraging them to take paid time off, taking some items off their plate and being flexible. It’s also vital to help workers draw boundaries between their home and work lives–by encouraging them to take a lunch break to eat with their family or urging them not to check emails after hours, for instance.

Managers and company leaders should also be open to discussing burnout and wellbeing with their workers. “Ask really good questions; instead of, ‘How are you?, maybe it’s, ‘How is your wellbeing?’ And then really taking the time to listen,” Bilheimer said.

Burnout and overall wellbeing are inextricably linked, and the combination is becoming a vital problem for employers to solve.

“Burnout does have a really strong relationship to your wellbeing strategy at your organizations,” she said. “This is directly related, and if you’re seeing high rates of burnout in your organization, it’s an opportunity to double down on a really strong wellbeing support strategy.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.