The year 2020 wrought changes in the workplace that were unprecedented in scope and completely unexpected. Most companies, it is fair to say, found themselves unprepared. It is estimated that 42 percent of the United States labor force began to work at home at some point during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some temporary workplace changes became permanent.
The speed of the unfolding health situation made it difficult to prepare for a rapid shift to working from home. Many workers needed to scramble to create at-home workplaces, adapt to conducting work through videoconferencing, and sometimes even learn new software programs, all without the support of in-person assistance. Flexibility can be more challenging for some than others.
One of the results of this massive change in how employees work was burnout. The feelings of depletion, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, and high-stress levels became commonplace across many industries and companies. Not only does burnout affect the mental health of employees, but it can also result in increased and serious additional physical health concerns such as heart disease, depression, pain, fatigue, and insomnia.
There is no end to the stressors that workers have been coping with recently. Whether employees find themselves caring for family members or simply unprepared to have a separate and ergonomically safe place to work, the lack of a particular “workplace” where there once was one has blurred the lines between work responsibilities and personal life.
With the sudden lack of commuting, the delineation between work time and personal time has been erased for many. There is no transition for those who work from home, and they miss a social component to their workday. Casual interaction at offices and work sites allowed employees to discuss their day in a communal space like a lunchroom or meeting room, which has been taken away.
The mental health challenges from the sudden and abrupt shift in work during the pandemic have increased employee complaints of physical aches and pains. Working from home creates safety challenges as workers do not have adjustable chairs, desks, and other ergonomically correct equipment, and organizations were not able to prepare to fund at-home offices.
How Can an Employer Help Their Employees Cope with this Challenge?
There are many ways an employer can help their employees deal with the complexity of a suddenly changing workplace and avoid burnout.
Employers can create a supportive work environment to help employees manage a heavy workload. This can be handled by spreading the work out among employees or implementing new technologies that can automate some of the labor. Perhaps shifting work hours or allowing a more flexible work schedule can help them better acclimate to the situation. And, as always, try to show appreciation for employees in a variety of ways to mitigate feelings that they are not productive enough.
How to Maintain a Level of Productivity from Home?
The lack of necessary tools, the separation between home life and work life, and face-to-face connection with coworkers have created extra burdens upon workers who were already concerned about job security and high workloads. This confluence of factors, both external and internal, has resulted in higher anxiety and stress levels, which is the natural default human response to uncertainty.
Employees who feel that they are juggling many conflicting activities begin to feel short on time and overburdened with work which leads to burnout. Couple that with having the perception of high employer expectations and a personal sense of failing to meet those expectations, and the modern workplace needs to change.
Change in Technology
There are a few ideas on how to adjust and adapt. For example, allowing workers to use a TV screen to participate in video meetings instead of looking at a laptop, and offering standing or walking desk solutions to promote physical movement or changing positions during meetings instead of sitting all day.
Change in Activity
The lockdown of exercise facilities also threw off the work-life balance of many, taking away the opportunity to work out at a gym to cope with life stressors, stay physically and mentally fit, and increase physical activity. The loss of control over one’s surroundings added to the feeling of a lack of accomplishment.
Employers can encourage or sponsor social hours, exercise challenges, mental health services, mindfulness routines, or alternative ergonomic solutions.
Recognize Mental Health Challenges
Occupational safety and health professionals should communicate and coordinate with the human resources team to promote employee self-care, speak about issues, and provide mental health counseling if needed. Studies have shown that workers were less likely to take time off during the pandemic than in the past. Frequent communication from management encouraging time off is imperative.
Disruption of social life, sleep, family life, exercise, and work-life has presented many challenges to employees and employers alike. This is the year to be as flexible as possible in order to keep everyone in your company working optimally, safely, and happily.
Use incentives to encourage employees to take breaks from the screen and move around more. For example, you can give gift cards to virtual exercise classes, healthy meal kit deliveries, or creative classes to empower your employees to create a satisfying life outside of work. By focusing on the wellbeing of employees from afar, managers and leaders can help their teams become healthier, happier people, which makes them better team members. As we move through 2021, helping workers cope with burnout develops skills that can lead to new ideas, solutions, and opportunities.
White, G., Burnout: Helping Employees & Weather the Challenges of Working From Home.