By now, we have all probably heard a lot about, and likely even experienced firsthand, some level of pandemic burnout. Most people are deeply grieving harsh realities — loss of loved ones, strained finances and loneliness. The list of misfortunes is endless, and the finish line seems elusive.
Leading through a sustained crisis like the COVID-19 public health emergency is forcing managers to be proactive and innovative in their approaches to nearly every aspect of their work. And due to the nature of this situation, they are obviously also having to support their teams while they are navigating through personal and professional difficulties of their own.
With the goal at work simply being to keep things operating as normally as possible, managers are truly in the position of building the plane while flying it. That is to say, managers must weigh risk with the feelings of uncertainty that accompany designing innovations and testing them in real-time with actual participants, all while being responsible for keeping existing operations running. Being a manager is no easy feat in normal circumstances and during this unprecedented time, it continues to be exponentially more difficult.
Effectively leading employees through this pandemic requires managers to first identify what burnout from this particular crisis actually looks like. Employees’ reactions, behaviors and temperaments may reflect the atypical nature of re-engineered operations and thus may be unfamiliar to even the most seasoned managers. Telework, virtual meetings and fewer interpersonal interactions between team members have added a layer of complexity to making certain that teams are performing well, and individuals are not struggling.
Here are some signs of what pandemic burnout might look like in employees who are starting to have a hard time.
- Being late or not showing up for virtual meetings
- Slow or no response to emails or text messages that one would have quickly responded to previously
- Complaints of continued exhaustion after time off
- Reluctance to start new projects or contribute beyond basic requirements
- Searching for certainty and control in places where there isn’t any
- Becoming easily frustrated
What can managers do to support their employees as this challenging time wears on?
Firstly, perhaps the single most effective way to support anyone who is struggling, in the workplace or otherwise, is to extend grace. When employees demonstrate behaviors that might indicate that they are rightfully feeling burnout, managers should stop and remember that no one suddenly decides that they no longer want to be a valued contributor for no valid reason. They may not have found a productive way to express it, but they may be struggling and new behaviors such as the ones listed above could be important cues.
Here are some other ways to effectively lead employees through pandemic burnout while extending the grace we all deserve right now.
Stay calm. Take the crisis one day at a time. Trying to tackle it any other way will heighten anxiety and stress for everyone. Being at level 10 is not healthy or sustainable long term.
Focus on the positive. Resist the urge to be drawn into negativity of any kind. In difficult times, people look for leaders who maintain a positive but realistic outlook. Move on from what cannot be done, focus on what can be done and rally the team around that project or idea.
Ground yourself. As a manager, you might be feeling exhaustion from being “on” all the time. Take a private 15-minute break and practice relaxation techniques like mediation or deep breathing.
Prioritize your team’s “to-do” list. Try to host shorter meetings. Be conscious of managing your time and that of your team. Deal with major issues while keeping an eye on the smaller ones. If you can lead the team to achieve even one major goal, the sense of accomplishment your team will feel may go a long way toward refreshing their sense of focus and generating feelings of relief.
Remind yourself of the bigger picture. Concentrate on the long-range view and the idea that at some point circumstances will improve — because they will.
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Kelly Brown is the Special Assistant to the Director of a public safety agency in Washington, D.C. In her 22 years in government, she has served in senior advisory roles within the executive offices of mayors and city administrators. Her career achievements include drafting the District of Columbia government’s first set of published customer service standards and conceptualizing engagement and culture pivot programs for upward of 40,000 employees. Kelly spends her spare time working on a collection of personal essays that she hopes to have published soon. She is passionate about language and about helping others find and cultivate their distinct voices, too.