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Sep 15, 2020

Our COVID-19 world is a textbook situation for increased burnout. Less than a year ago, the World Health Organization named burnout a workplace syndrome that costs $125 billion per year. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, the risk of burnout is skyrocketing beyond what anyone could have imagined.

Faced with unrelenting change and high stress, including the need to find new ways to work and live, employees need resilience and agility for the year ahead. The stress of uncertainty, change, and grief have already taken a toll. According to our research, based on over 250,000 users, people were already showing signs of trauma from mid-March to mid-May, with increased risks for anxiety (+21%) and depression (+9%) leading to a significant increase in burnout (+11%) versus the same time in 2019. 

In response to current and anticipated change fatigue and burnout, it’s critical for leaders to mitigate the impacts of emotional distress by providing access to resources and cognitive skill-building that will facilitate bringing our organizations back to health. Because if we burn out, then the entire process to recovery slows down.

The Perils of Change Fatigue

Burnout occurs when the demands being placed on someone exceed the resources they have available to deal with them. Which means that right now, the best we can do is to skillfully manage demands and try to use our capacity — our energy — wisely. 

At the same time, change fatigue happens when individuals are called upon to alter their behaviors constantly and to take on additional, and additionally taxing, responsibilities — without receiving extra resources or relief from any of their preexisting responsibilities.

What’s more, research points to harmful outcomes associated with change fatigue, including exhaustion, lowered organizational commitment, and turnover intentions.

The question becomes: How do we lessen the impact of this stress and at the same time support those who are already burned out?

It helps if leaders understand that some segments of the workforce will have default reactions to stress that make them especially vulnerable to burnout, even beyond the increased risk for everyone working through the COVID-19 crisis. Below is a discussion of the variability in individuals’ abilities to adapt to change and maintain energy in the face of burnout risk. 

Recognizing and Responding to Change Fatigue

Employees faced with the stress that comes with an environment where change is the only constant are at high risk for burnout, which can show up as physical or emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, or feelings of being ineffective. 

Why do some employees burn out while others don’t? The answer is in how employees manage the demands on them. Resilience enables people to rebound from stress and bounce back instead of falling deeper and deeper into exhaustion and burnout. In other words, resilience and agility are strongly protective against work burnout.

Our research shows a stark contrast in rates of anxiety and depression between employees who have high resilience and agility and those who have low resilience and adaptive capacity. 

  • About 40% of individuals with low resilience and agility show signs of moderate or worse anxiety and depression. 
  • However, among those with high resilience and adaptive capacity, the rate of anxiety and depression is 2% or less.
  • Highly resilient people are 28% more agile in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances than their less resilient counterparts. 
  • And 44% of those with low resilience and agility had scores indicating they are at risk for burnout vs. 6% of those with high resilience and agility.

Meanwhile, the way people think and respond to stress makes a profound difference in their ability to adapt and respond to change. For instance:

  • People with high levels of empathy and an emotionally-charged first reaction to a situation have the highest percentage risk for burnout (36% are at high risk).
  • The innovators we count on to forge ahead in times like these may not have the work-life balance and stress management skills they need — 25% of these strategically critical employees are at high risk for burnout.

Employees who don’t have the skills to manage stress effectively are prone to poor performance and even fatal mistakes. They’re also more likely to burn out on the job, and when that happens, engagement declines and performance suffers.

However, when we understand employees’ go-to thinking styles under stress, we gain the intelligence to protect them from burnout. There are seven primary factors associated with the likelihood of burnout:

  1. Sleep problems
  2. Stomachaches, headaches, and backaches
  3. Lack of work-life balance
  4. Dissatisfaction with life
  5. Poor stress management
  6. Low emotion control
  7. Low work engagement

By watching out for these issues among workers, employers are better able to predict risk of burnout and target cognitive upskilling to reduce those with high risk.

Finally, just as the pandemic has accelerated technological changes in the way we work and the way companies interact with their people, the crisis will accelerate scalable, intelligent mental health strategies. Planning for the post-pandemic reality is a challenge, and an opportunity, for all of us to focus on developing employee experience strategies that integrate behavioral and physical health and build resilience.

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