Earlier this year, global survey data released by Asana found almost three-quarters of Australians and New Zealanders suffered burnout at some stage in 2020, with the average office worker’s overtime nearly doubling and just 15% of Australian workers feeling completely “heard” by their organisation.
While the risk of burnout is increasing among more regular parts of the workforce, workers employed in high-pressure roles, such as hospital workers and medical assistance providers, face a greater risk of mental exhaustion, fatigue and feeling burnt out. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this situation.
The risks presented by burnout — which can lead to greater staff turnover, disengagement and low productivity — pose a growing challenge for middle and senior managers, who must balance looking after their team with increasing business pressure to deliver, sometimes while working with altered staffing capacity and budgets due to the pandemic.
It’s a lesson that Debra Harvey, operations manager for travel risk and emergency assistance provider World Travel Protection (WTP), knows all too well. WTP’s Command Centre in Brisbane is a hive of intensive case management, with staff helping customers on the phone through confronting traumatic medical scenarios throughout the day and night. Ms Harvey said these calls can take a mental and emotional toll if not managed correctly. Fluctuating border closures, mandatory COVID-19 testing and diminished airline capacities are also everyday hurdles that Ms Harvey’s team must overcome.
“Strangely enough, it’s not those big dramatic world events, like helping people through a natural disaster, that get you,” said Ms Harvey.
“More often it’s the smaller cases, like someone’s mother dying, that trigger you in surprising ways. Every person has a limit for how many difficult calls they can take.”
The key, said Ms Harvey, is to foster a company culture where emotional intelligence is seen as an asset rather than a weakness.
“The power of empathy is one of the most important soft skills our team members can have. It’s so crucial for them to be able to understand our customers, and it’s just as important how we apply that to our own employees as well,” she said.
Kate Everett from Benestar, a leading employee assistance program (EAP) provider of health and wellbeing services for organisations and their employees, said individuals are currently experiencing unprecedented levels of fatigue and fragility in mental health.
“Calls to our support line from people needing immediate and urgent support increased by 240% last year,” said Mrs Everett, head of clinical quality and innovation for the company.
“There are several things leaders can do to prevent burnout among staff, and leaders on the frontline are often the first ones to recognise when people are not coping. Recommended preventative measures include creating a supportive environment, increasing check-ins with team members and promoting free wellness resources, such as counselling sessions, available through EAPs.”
Ms Harvey agreed, saying one of her focuses as a manager is to get to know her team, organising regular, one-on-one catch-ups with employees to help her understand what potential topics or triggers could prove to be particularly distressing. Crucially, this isn’t to shield or limit her staff, but to help identify when additional mental or emotional support might be needed if the employee is having a hard day. She encourages managers to be curious and ask thoughtful questions to really get to the issue at hand.
“A key mistake made by many managers is to work with assumptions, which can lead to misunderstandings and employees feeling like their views are not being heard or don’t matter,” Ms Harvey said.
“It’s also important to regularly remind staff that they have access to an employee assistance program, which can provide counselling and other services.” She added that many employees tend to forget such options exist or are wary of using them.
While acknowledging that performance indicators need to be met for the business, such as calls being answered within 20 seconds, Ms Harvey said the company culture at WTP means the rest of the team will chip in and help carry the load if a staff member needs to take a break from the phones or speak to someone.
“At the moment, the pandemic means many businesses are talking about flexibility to work from home, but this seems to shift the onus onto employees to manage their own mental health. We should also be talking about flexibility while in the office, including the need to step out and away from our work, too,” said Ms Harvey.
Debra Harvey’s management tips to reduce burnout in your team
1. Schedule one-on-one conversations: Employees will feel more comfortable talking about workplace issues and it will help build trust between you and your staff. Employees will also be able to share their perspective as to what is happening in the wider team.
2. Don’t take burnout as a reflection on you: Managers can sometimes go on the defensive, viewing staff burnout as a reflection on their management style, when burnout is caused by a myriad of factors in and outside of the workplace.
3. Set the standard: When managers reply to emails late at night and work weekends, they set the standard expected of the wider team, which can place unintended workplace pressure on employees and lead to burnout. Try to set an example to your team on what a healthy workplace should look like.
4. Be an umbrella: Good managers protect their team’s time and shield them from unnecessary additional demands that might distract or cause additional stress. Be an advocate for your team and say no or push back on additional demands.
5. Encourage flexible work arrangements: Life is messy, and sometimes staff may need to arrive late, leave early or work from home. Communicate with your team that flexible options are on the table and this could help them to reduce stress elsewhere in their lives.