With the latest lockdown set to continue far longer than anticipated, how can you help frontline workers and homeschooling parents to avoid burnout?

The current lockdown is now anticipated to last until well into the Spring, meaning already fatigued working parents, who were expecting schools to reopen this month, now face many more weeks of extending their day in unhealthy ways to juggle work and homeschooling.

Meanwhile, many overstretched medics and other front-line workers are already experiencing burnout. The symptoms of which are characterised by three elements: feelings of emotional or physical exhaustion, mental detachment from work and reduced ability to perform at work.

Hoping employees can ‘push through’ is no longer an option, so here are five proven tactics you can use to help avoid burnout in your workplace.

1. Give back control

Burnout is characterised by feelings of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion resulting from exposure to prolonged stress, so it’s important to reduce stress levels.

Clearly this is easier said than done during a pandemic, but the HSE’s management guidelines for reducing stress highlight the importance of giving people a sense of control over their workload, deadlines and how they get their work done.

At a time when so much of our lives is out of control, allowing people to flex their day, where possible, around the need to homeschool or take a longer lunch break, so they can go outside and exercise during daylight hours, can provide immense mental health benefits. It can also make people, more, rather than less, productive to shift the focus from the hours worked to the results generated.

2. Allow people to recharge

If your employees are in the trenches all day, what are they doing after work that tops up their energy? Are they able to fully disconnect from work to enjoy time with their family or go out for a walk or read a book or do some meditation? Or are they constantly connected to work, trying to keep on top of housework or watching depressing amounts of news?

Help them to disconnect from work and consider what impact the activities they’re doing outside of work are having on their energy levels and to differentiate between what really matters to them and what can give. Yes, it would be nice to have a perfectly clean home, but is it really realistic to try to take on all the work a cleaner was doing before the pandemic? Or before everyone was at home messing up the house every day of the week?

Similarly, even though there’s no opportunity to jet off to warmer climes or enjoy a weekend break right now, it’s important that people still take holiday and try to use that time to have some downtime. According to research, the average worker had 14 days of unused holiday in 2020, so it’s hardly surprising that a global survey by LinkedIn found the number of employees experiencing burnout symptoms increased by 33% in 2020.

3. Create a caring culture

Instead of waiting for people to burnout, it’s far better to encourage them to come forward for help before they get to this stage. Critical to this is making sure people know that it’s okay not to be okay about finding ourselves still in a situation we all hoped would be over by now.

Create a workplace where people feel safe being open and honest with one another, by encouraging managers to talk about what they’re personally finding challenging right now, be it additional workload, homeschooling or having to cover for colleagues in self-isolation.

Encourage managers to also talk about how they’re going to be drawing a line between work and home in the evenings or making sure they get some time outdoors during the day, to communicate the message that ‘wellbeing is a priority’.

4. Provide psychological insights

Quite often when we’re feeling overwhelmed, or physically and mentally exhausted, it can be difficult to think of tactics for resolving our situation. In the past, opportunities for talking to friends or family might have got us to open up about what we’re struggling with and seek advice and tips, but the opportunities for doing this have been greatly reduced.

It can therefore be very helpful to offer employees the opportunity to have a group or one-off individual session with a psychotherapist, who can help them to review the issues impacting on their wellbeing and help them to build a strategy for dealing with these. Including how to get more rest, exercise, time for themselves and time in nature, plus what issues are preventing them from giving themselves this.

By making this a proactive education initiative, rather than waiting until people get sick, you can help reduce the stigma associated with talking about and proactively managing mental health and also sign-post people to further support, such as the practical and emotional support offered by an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

5. Promote positive thinking

Another factor increasing the risk of people experiencing burnout is the huge rise in how anxious we’re all feeling. According to the ONS, one in three (37%) of people across the UK are now experiencing high levels of anxiety, compared to 19% before the pandemic.

Left unchecked, this can lead to an exhausting tendency to catastrophise and view situations as being much worse than they are. For example, “If I don’t get this report in on time, I’ll lose my job”, or “If I can’t get out of this meeting in time for my daughter to do her Teams lesson, she’ll never forgive me” or “If I have to start using public transport to go to work again, I’ll probably catch the virus and die.” Constantly thinking like this can also impact negatively on sleep patterns and energy levels.

Positive lifestyle changes, such as more time outdoors and more rest, might not be enough to correct the problem, but even just a few sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (typically provided via an EAP), can be enough to get the individual to listen to their inner voice and consider if they would talk to a friend like this, or if all the negative thoughts they’re having are even that well-founded. CBT aims to equip people with the tools and insights needed to break the habit and develop a more positive inner voice. So they can take that internal pressure off themselves to reduce their risk of burnout.

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