A little bit of change is generally a good thing – as is a little bit of stress. However, prolonged stress – stress with no end in sight – can result in burnout. The World Health Organization (WHO), just last year, officially recognized workplace burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” defining it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” That was before the pandemic!
As we enter fall 2020, with more people returning to work and school under ever-evolving conditions that are almost impossible to anticipate let alone “manage,” it’s not a stretch to imagine that workplace burnout will increase. A quick Google search reveals news articles, blogs and preliminary research addressing a pandemic-related increase in burnout as early as the spring. That was a stressful time, when many workers were first sent home and others continued their jobs in settings that increasingly felt unsafe. Several months later, that stress could now be considered both “chronic” and “not successfully managed”; one might expect an increase in burnout without some innovative interventions.
The Career Engagement model offers a holistic perspective of factors contributing to “engagement” which, in some cases, can be considered the antithesis of burnout. Career engagement has been “defined as the current emotional and cognitive connection to one’s career; it is a state in which one is focused, energized, and able to derive pleasure from activities linked to work and other life roles” (Pickerell & Neault, 2016, para. 7). Achieving and sustaining engagement involves aligning capacity with challenge. Too much challenge for available capacity results in one feeling overwhelmed (which, if prolonged, can eventually result in burnout); too little challenge, on the other hand, leaves one feeling underutilized and, eventually, disengaged (which can look similar to burnout, but via a different route).
So, how can career development professionals help their individual and employer clients mitigate the risk of pandemic-related workplace burnout – whether the “workplace” in question is the traditional workplace or a temporary one at home? Attending to both levels of challenge and capacity within the individual and the organization are great places to start.
- Monitor challenge, in all life arenas. These are not normal times. In most cases, there is no “business as usual.” Work that was manageable pre-COVID may be completely overwhelming now – for a multitude of reasons. Check in regularly – with yourself, your colleagues and those whom you supervise – to monitor changes in challenge. Whether at work, at home, or in other life roles and activities, such changes may require adjustments to get challenge realigned with current capacity.
- Focus on meaning and purpose. Career engagement research reveals “challenge” as comprising both motivating opportunities and meaningful work. Avoid “busy work” to maximize engagement. Focus on accomplishing priority tasks and understand how they contribute to the overall purpose of an activity or project.
- Realistically assess capacity. Within the Career Engagement model, “capacity” represents several important factors for individuals and organizations to consider, including resources, relationships, workload, well-being and fit. Each of these factors should be explored, identifying areas where small tweaks or larger shifts may be needed to ensure there is sufficient capacity to cope with career and life challenges. Strive to assess each of the components and how they interact with each other; addressing capacity challenges in any single area could affect the whole system in unexpected ways.
- Access appropriate resources. Although it may be doable to limp along under-resourced for a short period of time, it’s stressful. The definition of burnout is when such stress is prolonged and inadequately managed. Now is the time to take inventory of what resources are needed to sustain work productivity longer term. This may include the need for improved technology (e.g. computers, high-speed internet, software) or additional bookshelves and filing cabinets at home, along with ergonomic desks, chairs and lighting. The resource category is large – it may include additional financial resources, childcare options, support for professional development or extended timelines for projects that are experiencing pandemic-related delays.
- Strengthen relationships. This can be particularly challenging in pandemic-related conditions of physical distancing, endless Zoom meetings, and travel restrictions. However, research has demonstrated the link between supportive relationships and engagement, so it’s important to make time to connect in a meaningful way with colleagues and folks you’re leading, as well as with customers, clients, students and other stakeholders in your day-to-day work. This extends to personal relationships, too – pandemic-related divorce rates are up; prolonged stress, if not effectively managed, can disrupt engagement in our personal, as well as professional, roles.
- Make realistic adjustments to workloads. Remember that your workload extends beyond paid work and may include childcare, eldercare, community outreach/volunteering, and even household chores. Consider all your daily and weekly tasks, then adjust where possible.
- Strengthen well-being. Perhaps now more than ever it is important to take care of yourself – physically, emotionally and mentally. Consider strategies such as meditation and mindfulness to destress, calm your mind, and facilitate good mental health. Take time each day to get some form of exercise, whether on your own or with others, safely physical distancing. Nourishing your body with good food, avoiding stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine, and getting sufficient sleep will improve your well-being. Lastly, be sure to set appropriate boundaries to avoid being stretched too thin. Sacrificing your own well-being to support others can bring on burnout.
- Re-evaluate fit. Within the Career Engagement model, values alignment is an important element when considering fit. Take time to reflect on your values, which may include things like honesty, hard work, helping others and giving back to the community, and how well these align with your organization. Remember to focus not only on what the organization says it values, but what is embedded in practice. A small misalignment may be tolerable but a values disconnect can sow the seeds of discontent.
- Take breaks. Remember that prolonged, unmanaged stress is the problem. Especially when working from home, after a spring and summer affected by travel restrictions and physical distancing, one day can blend into the next. Find ways to interrupt the stress, engaging in activities that delight or distract you. Whether taking micro-breaks between Zoom meetings, scheduling a mid-week game night with the family or building in weekends off, breaks are essential to avoiding burnout.
- Accommodate diversity. Each person is affected differently by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the global spread of a novel virus, the economic and social impacts of that virus are as diverse as the individuals we work with and serve. It is likely unhelpful to use only ourselves as the “canary in the coal mine.” Recognize that, even if you’re doing fine at the moment, others might be experiencing burnout due to a mix of challenge and capacity that’s unique to their circumstances.