3 Warning Signs of Burnout During COVID-19—and What to Do About It

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Top-performing employees who are suffering burnout may start being less productive or produce lower quality work. Look for this and other signs, and take action.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for more than a year, and many employees are feeling its impact. From concerns about exposure at work, to caring for family members while juggling work responsibilities, to uncertainty about job security, there's no shortage of sources of stress for employees. This stress can lead to burnout, lower productivity, and higher turnover. Here are some warning signs that an employee is burned out—and what you can do about it.

Warning signs:

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) defines occupational burnout as a syndrome resulting from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed" with three characteristics:

#1: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.

As the pandemic stretches on, employees may express feelings of exhaustion due to all the safety protocols that need to be followed, the amount of time that the pandemic has lasted, and the impact it has had on their job and workplace. Employees may also be experiencing a lot of grief – for lost friends, family, time, and opportunities – due to the pandemic. They may complain about difficulty sleeping and may dread coming to work. You may also notice an employee who is typically punctual is all of a sudden coming into work late.

#2: Increased mental distance or feelings of cynicism.

Employees suffering burnout may have more friction with co-workers and clients and come across more irritable or impatient with them. The employee may be complaining a lot more than usual, expressing negativity more frequently, and/or becoming more resistant to change.

#3: Reduced professional efficacy.

Top-performing employees who are suffering burnout may start being less productive or produce lower quality work. While small fluctuations in work can be normal, you may notice a more significant decline in their work even though they're putting in about the same or even more hours.

Your action plan:

You can help reduce stress and burnout by providing a positive and supportive work environment. Consider the following:

  • Communicate safety protocols.

Share the steps taken to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure at work. Follow applicable rules and guidelines for maintaining a safe workplace, be clear with employees about what you're doing to protect them, and let them know what you expect of them (social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands frequently, etc.).

  • Encourage employees to discuss stress.

Acknowledge that employees may be experiencing more stress during the pandemic and encourage them to discuss it with their coworkers and supervisors to identify areas that cause stress. Work together to identify solutions and highlight any company resources they can use to help. Consider giving employees more breaks from work to stretch, exercise, or check in with their coworkers, family, and friends.

  • Promote engagement.

Look for ways to promote employee engagement, such as creating an effective employee recognition program, offering flexible work arrangements to help balance work and life responsibilities, giving employees autonomy in how they complete tasks, planning morale-boosting activities, and providing career development opportunities.

Given the unique circumstances of COVID-19, you may need to consider making your telework arrangements more flexible than usual. For instance, telework agreements sometimes prohibit employees from taking care of a child or elder during work hours. However, if employees are asked to work from home due to community spread of the virus, children are likely to be home from school with no backup care available. Consider altering deadlines or allowing employees to schedule their work around their child or elder care needs.

  • Encourage time off.

Many employees are using less vacation during the pandemic than they usually do. To encourage employees to use their accrued time off, it may be helpful to remind them that you support the use of vacation time and let them know that leaders will be taking vacation as well. It may also be helpful to show the difference in what the average employee takes in vacation by this point in a typical year and what the average employee has taken in 2021. You generally still have the right to manage when and how much vacation employees take at any particular time. So, clearly communicate that vacations will be granted based on scheduling needs. Note: Some states and local jurisdictions require employers to provide paid time off to employees. Check your state and local laws to ensure compliance.

  • Set clear expectations.

Clearly communicate workplace rules and procedures so that employees know exactly what's expected of them. Confirm expectations when setting performance goals and provide employees with feedback on a regular basis. Avoid overwhelming employees with too much work or disengaging them with too little work or menial tasks. Hold supervisors accountable for providing employees with the support they need.

  • Don't make assumptions.

If you notice any changes to an employee's work performance or attitude, don't assume you know the cause. While the above warning signs could reflect that the employee is experiencing burnout related to COVID-19, it could also mean there's something else going on. For instance, if an employee is being subjected to harassment, it's possible they would exhibit some of the same behaviors, such as withdrawing from company activities.

  • Address performance and conduct issues.

If an employee isn't meeting performance or conduct expectations or is violating company policies, address the situation promptly. Let them know that you've noticed changes in their performance and/or attitude and give examples. Explain that you're trying to help the employee improve and give them an opportunity to respond.

If they reveal symptoms of burnout or grief related to the pandemic, offer company resources that may help, such as an Employee Assistance Program, and help them develop a plan for improving. Confirm that the employee has fully understood the expectations for improvement and have them acknowledge the discussion in writing. Retain a copy in the employee's personnel file. Schedule a follow-up meeting with the employee to see how they're doing. If their performance or behavior hasn't improved, further action may be necessary.

  • Consider other obligations.

Keep in mind that information the employee shares may trigger additional obligations. For instance, if the employee reveals they have a disability, such as depression, you may be required to provide them with a reasonable accommodation. Or, if the employee tells you that workplace misconduct has impacted their performance and attitude, launch a thorough investigation into the allegation.

In conclusion, it is important for you to take steps to help address and prevent job burnout – both during and after the pandemic.

Get more insights and best practices by visiting our COVID-19 Small Business Resource Center.

This article was originally published as an "ADP HR Tip of the Week" which is a communication created for ADP's small business clients.