Pandemic burnout is real, and it’s serious. Here’s how to support your workers.

Earlier in the summer, it seemed as though we’d be through the pandemic by the fall. Many of us envisioned ourselves leading near-normal lives — booking travel and heading back to the office. Now, as the Delta variant spreads and Colorado health leaders report that we’re in the fifth wave of the pandemic, many of those plans have been delayed. Though there are signs of infections slowing, we continue to see the mental health impact of many months of grief and lack of control. 

Isolation and increased workloads have sparked burnout symptoms, such as insomnia, anxiety, irritability, sadness, alcohol or drug abuse, and decreasing efficiency, among many employees. Consider:

At the same time, the Delta variant continues to surge, and some people may still feel frightened to interact with others and discontinue mask-wearing. Supervisors should be sensitive to feelings on both sides and offer reassurance to all anxious workers.

Burnout can impact productivity, of course, but concerns about your workers go beyond business. You want your employees to feel better. You can offer tools to take care of their mental health because you care about them. Use these tips for supporting workers experiencing burnout.

Supporting all workers

Show empathy. Even those who didn’t get COVID-19 have been impacted by it, whether they lost someone to the disease or are working while caring for children. Empathize with your workers at appropriate times by being honest about your own emotions, helping them be honest in return.

Encourage more sleep. Chronic anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns and increase feelings of fatigue. Exhaustion can also lead to mistakes on the job that compromise worker safety.

Organize (safe) social time. Many people, especially those working remotely, have experienced isolation during the pandemic without the usual social outlets such as book clubs, parties and even hanging out in the office break room. Connecting with people can reduce anxiety caused by isolation, but you need to present opportunities safely. Some people aren’t comfortable socializing yet or are immunocompromised, so they can’t meet in person. Set up socially distant in-person and virtual events to accommodate everyone. 

Train supervisors to recognize signs of stress. Workers may not realize they’re burned out. A supervisor who notices these signs can proactively address them by checking in with employees or offering them more resources to complete a job. Those symptoms you may see at work include: 

  • Increasing irritability. 
  • Lapses in concentration. 
  • Sadness. 
  • Reduced efficiency. 
  • Indications of drug or alcohol abuse. 

Acknowledge long-haul coronavirus symptoms. Roughly 11 percent of Colorado’s more than 5.7 million residents have had COVID-19. A small number develop long-lasting symptoms such as brain fog and memory loss that can worsen burnout. If you identify such symptoms, guide employees toward solutions, such as speaking with a medical professional. You can also highlight the ways your employee wellness program can address health frustrations after COVID-19, such as discussing flexible scheduling. 

Build resilience. Resilience training reframes challenges as opportunities to build emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual resilience. Try exercises such as having workers reframe a story that causes them anxiety with a positive ending.  

Be aware of rising drug and alcohol abuse. Stress is a risk factor for drug and alcohol use and abuse. Fatal overdoses have risen nationally during the pandemic, including up 37.5% in Colorado. Train supervisors to recognize signs of drug and alcohol abuse. Document your suspicions and observations and develop accommodations, if possible. If you need help with a policy, download Pinnacol’s sample drug and alcohol workplace policy.

Provide information about employee assistance plan (EAP) benefits. EAP programs can help employees identify and address personal problems that impact their performance at work, such as burnout or drug and alcohol abuse. Your employees may not be aware of the range of EAP resources available to them. 

Supporting remote workers

Champion work-life balance. The line between work and home life can blur for those working from home. Encourage employees to stop answering emails after work, take breaks and use their vacation days.

Give employees greater autonomy. While leaders may want to handhold through this “new frontier” with workers at home, micromanaging can exacerbate stress.  

Improve Zoom meetings. Video chats are inevitable during WFH, but one study found constant eye contact and seeing our own face on Zooms prompts a fight-or-flight response. Solutions?

  • Hide the self-view.
  • Invest in external keyboards for laptops so workers can sit further back from screens.
  • Allow workers to turn off video occasionally for audio-only calls.

Supporting frontline workers

Utilize daily, brief interventions. A study found short daily interventions can boost positive emotions while reducing negative ones by 44%. Interventions might include a five-minute expressive writing session detailing what happened during a shift.

Institute a buddy system. Only other frontline workers understand what your employees have been through. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pairing employees up, setting up times to check in on one another, and encouraging them to share tips for stress relief.

Promote healthy living. You’ve all heard it before, but eating right and exercising really do boost mental health. Start with small steps like offering healthy treats in the break room and enforcing water breaks to ramp up hydration.

Recognizing and helping address mental health issues in your employees is the right thing to do from a human perspective. Your efforts also decrease your medical expenses, as the single most expensive category of health problems for employers are mental health related.

If your attempts at reassurance, flexibility and group activities don't work with a particular employee, or their symptoms seem especially severe, then you may want to mention that mental health services are available through your company's health insurance or EAP program.

Learn more about encouraging worksite wellness through our information and research. For more expert advice, connect with Health Links and learn what small but impactful steps you can take to make real change in your employee's health, safety and well-being.

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