“I hope you enjoyed your time off and are feeling refreshed after the holidays.”
After a long, exhausting year that tested the resilience of every worker in the world, that email greeting seems innocent enough (if not hopeful). Leading up to the holidays, many workers used the vacation time they banked all year long to take an extended break from work. As they hustled through their last days in the office, they imagined how an extended vacation would provide a renewed sense of energy to start the new year. But for many workers, reality is setting in that they did not achieve the kind of mental refresh they needed.
Unfortunately, burnout is a complex beast that cannot be solved with vacation alone. First, there can be many causes of burnout. Being overworked, lacking communication, experiencing ambiguity, losing social support, feeling out of control, adapting to change, and having an improper work-life balance can all contribute to the feelings of burnout. Perhaps taking a vacation would provide short-term relief for feeling overworked, but unless there are systematic changes to the workload issue, the employee probably returned to hundreds of urgent emails. And a vacation may also help those who struggle with work-life balance, but only if they truly disconnect. Once back to work, if they fail to establish boundaries between their work life and personal time, the burnout will persist.
Leaders who were struggling to keep their teams engaged at the end of 2020 are realizing that vacation time didn’t fix the problem. It wasn’t just that teams were overworked. It wasn’t just the adjustment to working from a home office. The problem is so much bigger than we realized, and if anything the vacations put a band-aid on a festering organizational wound that must be resolved.
To truly address burnout, it is important to understand the root cause. Additionally, we must also accept that burnout Is a deeply personal experience. Each employee’s reason for burnout or disengagement will be different from the next. One person’s burnout may be completely unrelated to work itself, but impacts their workplace behaviors nonetheless. For example, the single parent who is trying to work from home while also managing their children’s virtual learning schedule will struggle to bring the best version of themselves to work every day. They may be less creative, more easily frustrated, or forgetful as they try to be everywhere at once. Similarly, a person whose family member is ill will struggle with being present while they are emotionally drawn towards their loved one’s needs. Finally, another employee may be struggling with the new workplace structure and lack of social support. Without coworkers nearby to engage with on projects, they may no longer feel the same sense of satisfaction or accomplishment in their work.
Each of these scenarios has a different cause, and therefore needs a unique response. Identifying the causes and possible solutions will be a challenge, as well. For leaders who haven’t created an environment of psychological safety, it will be difficult to have honest conversations about burnout. In that case, the leader may need to start with anonymous pulse surveys to take a data-driven approach to identifying common problems. Where possible, leaders should engage with their team members directly to better understand how they’re feeling and what they need to feel motivated again. The communication and framing around this conversation is crucial. Discussing burnout openly requires a high degree of vulnerability for the employee and a high degree of trust in the employer. It may be helpful to ask each person what they need right now. Be prepared with some suggestions to start the conversation. Being transparent about your own struggles with burnout and how you are coping may be a great way to open the conversation.
Burnout didn’t happen overnight, it took months to build up in the workplace. In the end, it will take time and a strong partnership to identify the right combination of actions to help everyone feel reconnected to their goals.