Lincoln Absence Advisor

Burnout in the current environment

May 07, 2020 Lincoln Financial Group Season 1 Episode 11
Lincoln Absence Advisor
Burnout in the current environment
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Stress and burnout in the workplace isn’t a new topic – but with so many people newly working at home, it’s more relevant than ever. In this episode of Lincoln Absence Advisor, we discuss how employers can detect and prevent burnout, and how they can help their employees take care of themselves on the job now – and when they go back to their usual office routine. 

Learn more about: 

  • Why working at home can lead to burnout – more interruptions, less structure and feedback, and more technology issues
  • How COVID-19 contributes – worries about health and the economy, adapting to a new work style, and dealing with social distancing that can turn into social isolation
  • Signs of burnout and what employers can do -- helping employees set expectations for their workday, establishing boundaries between work and home, and retaining a sense of community with their coworkers


LCN-3072528-050520

© 2020 Lincoln National Corporation. All rights reserved.

Karen Batson:

Hi again everyone! This is Karen Batson marketing manager for leave and disability at Lincoln Financial Group. During the Lincoln Absence Advisor podcast, we've discussed the transition from the workplace to working from home. How this changed our communication style, how we must focus on different best practices and how it affects our mental health. And as we've had these discussions and observed other research, there's an aspect I want to dive deeper into and that's burnout. With blurred lines between home and work and increasing demands, more workers may experience burnout. I'm joined today by Dr Glen Pransky, a physician and internationally recognized researcher in work and health. Together we walk through the causes of stress and burnout and what employers may offer their employees in this new environment in order to avoid the problem. Welcome Dr. Pransky. Let's start with a level setting kind of question on the definition of burnout. What is burnout and why are we hearing so much about it now?

Dr. Pransky:

Well, burnout is a syndrome, not a formal diagnosis. It was first described in the 1970s as something that occurs because of continued stress about work. People with burnout feel exhausted and overworked on the job. They often develop a negative or cynical attitude about their work and they usually feel that their performance is slipping also. Unlike depression or some other serious mental health diagnosis, people experiencing burnout feel a lot better after they're away from the stresses of their job. These feelings and attitudes have become more common, especially in high stress jobs like teaching, m edicine, nursing. These are all jobs where the work demands seem to keep increasing, the work processes become more frustrating and workers feel that they have less control over their j obs.

Karen Batson:

Now from your viewpoint, has this been a popular topic even before the current environment that we're in today?

Dr. Pransky:

Oh, yes. Karen , there has been a lot more focus on this in press coverage over the last 10 years. But some experts think that this is just another way of looking at work related stress problems that have always been present.

Karen Batson:

I've seen a heightened interest in my feeds on burnout, given the current situation, current environment. What makes now different or why is there a different focus on burnout?

Dr. Pransky:

You know, if you think about the reason that people feel burned out, you can easily imagine how those could happen when some employees make a transition to full time working at home, especially if they've never done that before. So first, think about the usual nine to five limits on work. Often people find that they're on their computer or phone longer hours at home and they start to feel that they have to respond promptly to every email regardless of what time zone it came from. You might have processes that work well when you're in the office and they really don't work all that well at home and that creates more frustration and that can even make the workday longer. However, research shows that after more than five or six hours in front of a computer, most people become much less productive and that also can be more frustrating.

Karen Batson:

Has any of the research show how maybe interruptions, like frequent IMs or unplanned phone calls, which I know are happening a lot as people are all remote...if they've increased or changed while working from home and maybe how they create stress.

Dr. Pransky:

Well, interruptions in the workplace or at home are often necessary. But research shows that interruptions decrease productivity and sense of accomplishment and they can lead to more stress on the job. But often there are many more interruptions during a workday at home and each time someone has to refocus, reorient back to work after an interruption that requires additional mental effort. And that can be quite tiring after a whole day of interruptions.

Karen Batson:

Absolutely. I would think this could be one element that contributes to b urnout. What are some other considerations that may lead to a sense of burnout?

Dr. Pransky:

That's a good question. Um, I think there's often less appreciation or feedback from a boss or manager who's no longer physically present. So if you're a remote employee, it's sometimes not so clear if you're doing a good job or not, or getting everything done that you're supposed to get done. And there's less support from coworkers or technical experts who are no longer nearby. This workplace community is important in how people experience stress on the job. So if you lose this community that can contribute to feeling more stressed and less supported.

Karen Batson:

In our last conversation about mental health, we talked about the importance of scheduling , and that being one of the important tools we have to maintain our mental health. And when I was doing research for this conversation, a popular theme for burnout causes was boundaries and those blurred lines between boundaries. Any thoughts around that?

Dr. Pransky:

Oh yes, Karen, there's always the stress trying to do a job while managing a family who are all stuck in the same place. People working at home site, family members as the number one source of interruption that prevent them from fully concentrating on their work. And it's even more challenging for parents who are trying to work and at the same time manage their children at home.

Karen Batson:

Now kids at home are a large part of the conversations we're hearing today, especially in that remote work environment. But I must add as someone without kids at home, the boundaries of work and life still get blurred. Because we're always home.

Dr. Pransky:

That's very true for me too. Um, I have to always be thinking about following my own advice about setting those time and place boundaries of where and when I will work. And then there can be constant interruptions from my spouse, from newsfeeds, IMs and other distractions that I don't think they would happen as much if I was at the workplace.

Karen Batson:

I'll circle back to the environment we're in now. What's different now that contributes to burnout?

Dr. Pransky:

So I think there are multiple elements to this new environment that can add to stress and lead to burnout. Many people are worried about the strange new economy. Will I have a job, will my company be okay? And in addition to all the stress that might occur, transitioning from the workplace to home, most people's jobs have also changed dramatically to adapt to this new situation . We're being asked to do new things in new ways and often asked to do more also. And all this can add up to a lot of stress and that certainly can contribute to feeling burned out.

Karen Batson:

In reading articles on the challenges of working from home, productivity often comes up. Do you think employers are expecting these extra efforts or rather have a concern about productivity with people working from home?

Dr. Pransky:

You know, I think employers are often so busy trying to keep operations going, trying to maintain business continuity that managers may not have time to think about this too much, but, but yes, there's always concerns about how much harder it is to manage productivity when workers aren't present...when they're at home. Especially for people who might over-work or under-work. Their boss just sees that the job is or is not getting done and really has less ability to know exactly how much time or effort it took to get that job done.

Karen Batson:

Now let's switch gears slightly and talk about the employees. What do we see when employees say they feel burned out?

Dr. Pransky:

So they complain of being exhausted, apathetic about the job, unmotivated and unhappy with their work and their productivity. They might complain more to coworkers and become less responsive to customers. Often they start looking for other jobs that they hope will be less stressful .

Karen Batson:

So if seeing some of these signs, how can employers be aware of these signs with remote workers,

Dr. Pransky:

it's tough. Uh , as I mentioned, they know less about what's actually going on with them. But I think a key strategy is to check in regularly and ask the right questions. How many hours are you putting in? What's your workday like? How do you feel about the job you're doing? How do you feel about what you're getting done? And ask about the most common frustrations that we find with at-home work. Are the hours too long? Are there family conflicts? Is the technology driving you crazy? Is your workspace okay? Do you have a lot of interruptions? Are you having difficulty concentrating and are you feeling lonely and are you taking a break from work several times during the day? These are the sorts of questions I think managers should be asking.

Karen Batson:

Now. Maybe we can walk through some tips for employers to help be proactive in these situations. What are the things that employers can do to prevent their employees from feeling stressed and burned out, especially in the current environment?

Dr. Pransky:

Well, I think you can start with setting expectations in terms of hours of work per day and what really needs to be accomplished. It's probably a good idea to let everybody know that the tendency for remote workers is to put in longer hours and do whatever is required to accomplish as much as they feel is necessary to get the job done. But remind people that in the long run, working very long hours at home may lead to feeling burned out in addition to creating stresses with the family and becoming actually less productive. So I think all of this means that you want employees to check in with you regularly. You want to know how it's going, how they feel they're doing, and make sure that they aren't overly stressed. It's also an opportunity for you to give them some feedback on their work. This may be especially important if you used to see them often in the office and provide this sort of feedback in person but can't do it in person now.

Karen Batson:

So a few moments ago we talked about boundaries as an important strategy for working at home, separating work and home activities as much as possible. Any thoughts there?

Dr. Pransky:

This is a really important point. One that I've learned myself. I'm fortunate because I've got this small basement room that I can use for work and I try really hard to keep all of my work there and not bring it back to all over the rest of the house. My family knows that I'm probably busy if I'm in my little basement room, but I'm happy to talk with them when I take a break. Even though I'm at home, I've gotten everyone used to the idea that I sort of go to work for a certain amount of time every day. That's actually become much less stressful for me and for them when I do that.

Karen Batson:

Now that's probably not possible for everyone, right? To have a separate space.

Dr. Pransky:

Yes, Karen, that's very true. Um, I have many colleagues who have to work at the kitchen table and they have their children nearby, but some of them have learned the value of having a routine so they explain every day to their children that Dad has to go to work and these are the hours that he will be working. Everybody gets dressed for work and school every day. They ask the children to focus on their schoolwork during the same time and their dad tries to set an example by taking a regular break, maybe pausing to help kids with homework and having lunch together perhaps with a little bit of time outside the house a few times a day and when possible everybody ends the work or school day at a specific time and tries to stay off work calls and emails after then. It may seem hard at first, but creating and maintaining a normal routine can really help the entire family.

Karen Batson:

What are some of the other things that employers should do or should be doing to prevent stress and burnout?

Dr. Pransky:

I can't emphasize enough, the importance of talking with each employee on a regular basis acknowledge that working at home isn't easy for everyone and bring up the types of challenges that you've heard about. Maintaining employee confidentiality of course, be empathic, share your own experience. Find out about the challenges that each employee's experiencing. These often fall into one of several categories, technical problems, communication with coworkers and others, isolation and loneliness because of being separated from the workplace, challenging work arrangements at home and maybe difficulty adapting to a new job, a new job requirements. Find out about each one of these because they can all add up to create a lot of stress and dissatisfaction if they aren't addressed.

Karen Batson:

How do you address all those problems?

Dr. Pransky:

Can be challenging. There might not be easy answers for all of them, but at least you can listen and show your concern and maybe look for or suggest a way of finding answers. There are several resources on stress relief that are good and have been developed for people working at home. At the end of our conversation I'll mention some freely available online resources about setting up a home office to make working at home as comfortable and stress free as possible.

Karen Batson:

Yes, I've seen from the studies on burnout in the healthcare profession that computer systems that are difficult to use, removing workers flexibility about how they do their job and appearing to prevent them from working efficiently can be very stressful.

Dr. Pransky:

Oh yes, this is a common problem and it's not only just in healthcare where I think it's received the most attention. This is a priority now for people who are now working at home. We need to find ways to make their systems as functional as possible. You might find that some computer problems are affecting everyone and ask your IT department to try to solve them or offer some suggestions or work around

Karen Batson:

And what about support from coworkers and how that might affect stress and burnout?

Dr. Pransky:

Well, having regular communication with coworkers is important for many people and this often gets lost with the transition to working at home. I would encourage employees to establish regular brief virtual check-ins with their fellow workers. We find that for some people having a video conversation is more engaging and personal than a phone call. However, there are other people that find video calls intrusive, so it's important to acknowledge and respect these differences as you encourage these types of contacts. Virtually everybody working now has seen major changes in how their job is being done. Some are adapting better than others, so it's important to identify and help those who are struggling. Find out what's a problem for them and what might help. Some companies have relied on mentorship from other employees, more frequent contact with supervisors, training or informational videos and redistributing job tasks based on employee preference to deal with these issues.

Karen Batson:

Do all these suggestions work for everyone?

Dr. Pransky:

Karen, that's a good question cause we find a lot of really surprising differences in what works best for people doing their job at home. I think it's important to avoid these sort of one size fits all solutions. I encourage people to try out different strategies, find out what works best for you personally. For me, it's a standing workstation, a large screen, I like to start my work day at 6:00 AM with the most intellectually challenging work. And then I save my emails and administrative stuff for the afternoon. I find that if I take frequent short breaks and get some exercise every day, I feel a lot less stressed. What works best for you?

Karen Batson:

Oh goodness. Um, so I probably would name two things. Since we've had so many conversations on mental health and working from home, I've really spent some time observing myself and I found shifting my breaks to fit this new environment was really important. For instance, I don't take a lunch break at noon, but take smaller breaks in the morning and the afternoon. And that's really helped my productivity when I sit down at my desk. Um, even if I maybe go back to the workplace later or shift that time period. The other important thing I've learned is going back to that boundaries conversation we had and finding what triggers me to show that that boundary has changed. Right? So, for instance, I'll go down to my basement to work out, which I don't go into my basement during working hours , or I'll go outside for a walk and as soon as I pass that threshold back in through the front door or the door coming upstairs , I'm now switched to my life, right from my work life to my normal life, and that's really helped me as well.

Dr. Pransky:

Karen, these are really interesting points because I think you've raised one of the positive things about , uh , coping with these stresses in that we're all potentially learning things from this strange time that once things gradually transition back to normal and we go back to work, we'll know better, I think, how to take care of ourselves on the job.

Karen Batson:

Absolutely. It'll be interesting to watch. So we've gone through a few tips and I'm thinking it's probably a good time for our listeners to hear about the different resources that you have mentioned, Dr Pransky. How can we find them?

Dr. Pransky:

Well , um , let me give you a few URLs that will lead you to them. Uh , start with https...

Karen Batson:

Let's pause there. I think maybe we, maybe we start with , um, search terms or something like that to get folks to the resources they need. URLs might not work for the podcast format.

Dr. Pransky:

Sorry. Sorry, your course. That's much better. Okay. Are you ready?

Karen Batson:

Ready.

Dr. Pransky:

All right , let's try this. So first off for working at home, I like this article from PC magazine from the end of March of 2020. You can find it if you search with the terms PC magazine, 20 tips working at home, that'll get you there. And several of our experts did an excellent podcast on best practices working at home. And it covers not only the physical arrangement but making it less stressful. And you can find this by searching Apple podcasts, Lincoln Absence Advisor. And once you get there, look for the April 7th edition. And then for stress relief while working at home, there's a good article from the UK that you can find it using the search terms independent, working from home and burnout. And then finally , in this stressful time, some general suggestions to maintain mental health off and on the job, go back to the Apple podcast that I mentioned in Lincoln Absence Advisor and download the March 31st edition.

Karen Batson:

Great resources and thank you for plugging some of our other episodes, one that stars you, which is great. Great information. Thank you for joining us. I really appreciate your time. I know you will be back cause we have a lot of topics to discuss, but we always love having you.

Dr. Pransky:

My pleasure.

Karen Batson:

To everyone listening, thank you for joining us. We will continue to cover topics that help employers and their employees navigate through this new environment. So be sure to subscribe to Lincoln Absence Advisor on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Disclosures:

The information contained in this podcast is for general use and is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney or your human resource professional. Lincoln Financial Group is the marketing name for Lincoln national corporation and its affiliates. Affiliates are separately responsible for their own financial and contractual obligations.

What is burnout?
The current environment
The impacts of burnout
Tips for employers
Resources