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Help your employees avoid work burnout crisis set to hit due to COVID-19

Posted by Mandy Donnison
on 07 May 2020

Employers who don’t support staff wellbeing during the COVID-19 lockdown can expect a second crisis in the latter half of 2020 as a wave of work burnout and stress takes its toll, experts have warned.

A period of quarantine, like the one taking place across the UK now in the fight against COVID-19, leads to a wide range of psychological impacts including depression, anxiety and insomnia.

A Belgian study showed the proportion of the population feeling a toxic level of stress increased 10 percentage points to 25% two weeks into lockdown. It’s said those people are at risk of burnout and stress issues. 

Workplace stress, anxiety and depression

Even before the coronavirus crisis, depression, anxiety and stress were already the top reasons for long-term absenteeism, according to Health and Safety Executive figures. 

Dr Elke Van Hoof, a professor of health psychology and primary care psychology, told the World Economic Forum the toll of the stress being felt by people in the lockdown could result in an epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism later this year.

Homebound workers, increasingly insecure over their jobs, are working longer hours, according to reports. UK staff working from home are putting in two hours extra every day during the current crisis, the Independent newspaper reported.

Stressed Businessman Sitting In Office

People are drinking more due to COVID-19

A poll The Institute for Employment Studies showed almost half of workers (48%) were putting in longer or more irregular hours than normal and 50% were not happy with their current work/life balance.

In addition 20% reported increased alcohol consumption.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, workplace wellness expert and Delamere health advisory board member, is calling on employers to put in place measures to support staff now and help avert a crisis down the line. He fears the issue will be with presenteeism (when people work long hours when they are unwell affecting productivity and health) rather than absenteeism, because people will be scared for their jobs and not want to take time off.

He told us: “I don’t think you’ll see absenteeism but will see presenteeism. We’re going into a recession and that means people won’t want to be off ill and will continue to work during lockdown and when we come out.

“They will suffer a lack of mental wellbeing but will turn up for work but be unlikely to contribute any added value.

“Line managers need to be checking up on the health and wellbeing of their teams all the time. This requires line managers to have substantial EQ (emotional intelligence). There are a lot of managers from shop floor to top floor that have technical skills and not necessarily people skills.

“Managers need to not have too heavy expectations on performance. They need to have realistic deadlines and objectives and not overload people because they are going to be stressed. If people feel supported they will come out of this.”

In a webinar for the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development), of which he is president, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Manchester Business School, Sir Cary said: “Don’t burn yourself out because I think that is a real worry in this.

“People when feeling insecure will tend to work more. Try to discourage that.

“Also, know what support is there and point them in the right direction if someone needs it.

“We could come out of this and learn a hell of a lot. We could be working much more flexibly, we could have people with more autonomy and, if we treat them well and are kind and humane, we can all benefit and have tighter, better and more efficient teams.”

Sir Cary issued ten points of advice each for people working from home and for the employers and managers of work-from-home teams.

Ten top tips for remote workers

  1. Follow a routine. This may be particularly important for parents who have children at home and are juggling childcare and homeschooling with work too. It may not be possible to work 9am – 5pm, but having a plan and communicating it within the household will help.
  2. Set ground rules within your household. Establish roles of who is talking which responsibilities and when and areas set aside as work spaces, where possible.
  3. Find a suitable place to work. This is necessary for productivity and stress management but also physical health. The Institute of Employment Studies has reported a large increase in musculoskeletal issues relating to poor desk setups and poor posture.
  4. Stay active – make time for exercise
  5. Get dressed – don’t be tempted to stay in PJs!
  6. Don’t become too reliant on email communication. Be aware of the risk of misunderstandings and conflict creation that email can cause. Pick the phone up or, better still, video call to manage at least some of your communications.
  7. Limit your news intake. Perhaps consider just focusing on one news broadcast a day, rather than having a constant negative drip of news.
  8. Take control of the things you can. So much of what is happening in the world is beyond our control at the moment. Taking positive actions on outcomes you can affect will make you feel better.
  9. Stay connected – maintain positive social connections using technology.
  10. Reflect on working life – take the opportunity to consider what aspects of your work are positive and what could be improved.

Ten tips for managing remote teams

  1. Put safety first – do your teams have appropriate and safe work spaces and everything they need?
  2. Know when to step away from your desk – set an example. Have a lunch break. Pre-Covid people’s average lunch was 22 minutes and it was taken at their desk. Have a break and, if you have them at home with you, why not spend it with your family?
  3. Minimise stress – set expectations and boundaries for communications and lead by example by not emailing outside of working hours.
  4. Have a virtual daily huddle – it’s vital to have remote eye-to-eye contact with teams and on an individual basis. Line managers should aim for at least one one-to-one a week with each team member to check how they’re doing and that they feel supported. It’s vital to ensure regular contact with furloughed staff too.
  5. Foster relationships – showing your own vulnerability will help others to share how they are really feeling
  6. Offer and demonstrate flexibility.
  7. Set expectations and trust colleagues – a leading cause of stress is when people don’t feel they have autonomy over how to do their jobs and deliver work.
  8. Be kind. One of the positives coming out of this is people letting down the veneer of their work persona and sharing details of themselves, their lives and their families, with colleagues. This fosters better understanding and better relationships.
  9. Discourage presenteeism (the act of continuing to work when unwell). Employees who are feeling insecure about their jobs are increasingly vulnerable to feeling they must show up to prove their worth even when unwell. 
  10. Offer support on wellbeing – if you sense there’s anyone who doesn’t seem to be coping make sure you know what support is available for your employees.
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About the author: Mandy Donnison

Mandy manages our admin, HR and finance functions here at Delamere. Find out more about Mandy on our team page.

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