By Mark Samuel –
Many people, including myself, thought we would only be working remotely for 3 to 5 months as a result of the pandemic. So much for our opinions, plans, and predictions! It’s now been 10 months or longer and we are still experiencing some of the highest infection rates as we move into the vulnerable season of late Fall and Winter. Pandemic burnout is real and we’re all feeling it.
The Good News
The biggest surprise to me has been how well many organizations and individuals have adapted to the new work-from-home environment. In fact, many organizations are showing higher levels of productivity, quality, and positive customer experience. Even management has changed for the better in many cases—reaching out more to their direct reports, caring more about people’s personal lives rather than just their work, and acting with greater tolerance and adaptation to change in support of their team.
From my interviews with many employees in various organizations about their experiences this year, I’m hearing some impressive benefits. Some mention the benefit of less travel time, others the benefit of more time with family. Some are experiencing fewer disruptions from not being at their desk in the office. With the use of technology and video conferencing becoming a norm in many organizations, people are getting to see and work with others across multiple time zones that they’d never met “face to face” before when they met only by phone. The list of benefits and improvements is long and varied.
COVID and Remote Working Burnout
As each month goes by, even with all of the benefits that have arisen from the new normal that’s been “forced upon us,” pandemic burnout grows as people are getting more and more exhausted. In surveying several people about what is causing this pronounced fatigue, there are many very different contributing circumstances.
- More meetings than ever to ensure effective information sharing and communication
- More time sitting without moving in front of a computer screen…sometimes for hours without a break from morning until evening
- Added stress from coordinating schedules with children in school…then out of school due to an outbreak
- Coordinating between a spouse or partner’s work schedule when you both need privacy and uninterrupted space to meet with others and there is not enough room in your house or apartment
- Taking longer to schedule time with others who are no longer working next to you to ask simple questions or have short conversations
- Internet connection breaking down, causing poorer communication and coordination at the most inopportune times
- The stress of not experiencing in-person, face-to-face connection, especially for extroverts who gain energy from being with others, as well as new hires who have never met anyone personally on their new team
- The stress of the mundane—every day looking more like the previous one, with no break in sight and the fear of catching the coronavirus lingering in our consciousness
- And, again, the list goes on!
Recovering from Pandemic Burnout
As the pandemic has been a life-changer for most of us, it’s important to use our recovery solutions as an opportunity for meaningful positive change, not just another quick fix solution. This means looking at all of the causes of pandemic burnout in areas of our life that can be improved whether the pandemic is in play or not.
Upgrading Your Self-Care
Too often, our lives are centered on supporting others—our boss, our team, our family, our extended family, and sometimes our friends. How often have you felt depleted from continually giving to and supporting others without properly taking care of yourself? When that gets old and exhaustion sets in, so often we can start making choices that don’t serve us, like eating too much, drinking too much, or watching too much TV.
While decompressing with these kinds of habits might have worked to replenish you in the past, I’m sure you’ve quickly realized that depletion happens more quickly and more intensely in this new environment, and the only way to stay focused and energized is to proactively take care of yourself. It must become a regular practice each and every day to do little things for yourself that add up. Here are some ideas, some of which will fit for you and some that won’t. Start with identifying just one thing you will do to make a difference:
- Schedule breaks into your workday, whether between meetings or between projects so that you aren’t sitting in the same position for too long.
- Take stretch or movement breaks during and after video meetings or working at your desk for long periods—at least once per hour! You only need a minute of stretching to gain great value for your body and mind.
- If you want to add a little fun into your day, turn on some music for a minute or two and dance at your desk with no one watching.
- Drink lots of water to stay hydrated rather than depending on coffee and soft drinks. We are finding that people are getting dehydrated sitting at their desks for long periods of time.
- Get more sleep. The stress of the day, the mental energy expended for increased coordination with others in the workplace, and screen fatigue can all increase your need for sleep.
- Take more walks to get outside and change your scenery while getting some exercise and fresh air at the same time.
- Use weekends to catch up on self-care by scheduling personal time for yourself and allowing other members of the family to support you for a short time.
Taking Care of Your Team
During this pandemic era, it’s critical that we all take care of each other instead of leaving it to a manager to take care of everyone. And, as managers, we need to create the open and safe space for people to take care of each other by being effective role models. Here are some options for taking care of your team and reducing pandemic burnout.
- Coffee, lunch or tea-time with individual team members to share anything but work. This is a great time to be curious and learn more about each person’s history and current life situation, to offer support, and to just be a caring ear to listen to any challenges or wins they have experienced.
- Ask other team members how they like to be communicated with and any sensitivities they have around communication, especially on screen. We have discovered that there is so much diversity in what people like and don’t like. For instance, there are those who want to have lunch all together, while others don’t want to be seen eating on screen. What are those nuances that you can learn about your teammates during this time period?
- Increase “human-to-human” connection with others on your team, on other teams, and with your customers. Find out each other’s home challenges to determine how the team can be supportive of anyone with small children, taking care of their elderly parents, living with partners working different jobs, or caring for children who need home schooling. It’s a great idea to invite the team to brainstorm ideas for how to best accommodate those situations.
- Communicate – Communicate – Communicate. This is a time when added updates, asking questions to clarify goals and assignments, and letting people know of any changes is critical. People in remote working conditions require more communication to prevent the stress of “not knowing” or “surprises”.
- Ensuring that emails and meetings are outcome-driven, not just activities to be done. The number one and two complaints I’ve heard are too many meetings and too many emails. Many were a benefit at the beginning of working remotely, but are now a hinderance given that we are more used to working remotely. Too many meetings and emails was an issue before COVID and is still a major issue in many organizations.
Taking Care of Your Home Life
There is now no separation between work and home as long as you are working at home. This means that family (and pets) are present more of the time for spontaneous interruptions, questions, and needs. It’s critical that we look at our life set-up differently than ever before.
- It is finally time to learn how to set boundaries and parameters and do our best to stick to them. This applies both to your work team and your family members. It is no longer practical to be available for others any time they want just because you are home or near your computer.
- Set clear boundaries between your work time and your personal or family time. Again, this is critically important, because many people are working much longer hours—up to 25 or 35 percent more than before COVID. You have to learn to say NO…to yourself mostly!
- Upgrade your home office environment to ensure you have great chairs that support your back and an atmosphere that includes family pictures, fun art, or simple and beautiful backdrops. Having a window that lets in lots of sunlight or that you can open for fresh air while you’re working can also be very helpful if you have that option available.
- Schedule video calls with family members and close friends to stay connected with the most meaningful people in your life.
- Communicate – Communicate – Communicate. Does this feel like déjà vu? Communication with family members such as sharing appreciation for each other, sharing thoughts and ideas, and discussing challenges openly and regularly before they fester is very important in maintaining a peaceful and loving home environment. This can be a great time to open up and create greater safety for honest, direct, and vulnerable communication that has no blame or judgment in the mix.
- Schedule ways to have fun, change up the monotony of being at home, and do things that are different and still respectful of the COVID environment. Taking a pretty drive together, playing board games, having a picnic at a park or on your lawn, or reading to each other are just some ideas to make things fun.
Ultimately, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions for COVID Fatigue. However, if we stay curious, in a learning mode, and experiment with different ideas, we can get through this challenging period with a little more grace and ease.