April 18, 2022

The fatigue is real. What should leaders do now?

The headlines about burnout rates are starting to blur together, and without any real, tangible end to the pandemic in sight, it’s understandable if you’re ready to stick your head in the sand. It was only a few weeks into the pandemic when we first noticed the burnout on our teams. Back then, we faced the exhaustion of having to greet another day of uncertainty, waiting for some clear direction from the government or our organizations on how we would deal with the sudden shift in our lives. We called on company leaders to lead with compassion, empathy, and kindness as we navigated those early months. But as we enter year three of the pandemic, with no real promise of change anywhere on the horizon, our teams continue to suffer the compounded effects of the challenges we’ve been facing with remote work, lack of childcare, uncertainty about our future, and isolation. We can’t give up hope now, and if we are to gain and keep the trust of our teams, managers and leaders must continue to show compassion and empathy for their exhausted employees. 

The good news is, as leaders, we don’t have to pretend we have all the answers. Showing up with empathy and compassion should include leading with vulnerability and a willingness to say, “I don’t know the solution, but we’re going to keep working together to find relief to this ongoing fatigue.” Burnout rates have been on the rise for the duration of the pandemic, with managers and leaders at higher risk for symptoms of burnout like stress, insomnia, anxiety, and an inability to focus. Given that managers are tasked with supporting their teams, it’s not surprising that the emotional load often falls on them. 

Driving factors of fatigue

A recent Gartner report suggests three main factors contribute to fatigue: 

  1. Digital Distractions. Employees in the hybrid workforce are 2.54 times more likely to experience digital distractions.
  2. Virtual Overload. 75% of HR leaders agree that the more virtual touchpoints employees have to keep track of, the higher their risk of burnout.
  3. Not knowing when to (or not being empowered to) turn off. 40% of hybrid or remote employees have reported an increase in the length of their workdays in the past year.

Fatigue was once considered the domain of new parents and night shift workers — people forced by circumstance to fight their natural sleep patterns. To think that knowledge workers at large would one day face extreme fatigue symptoms like memory loss, distorted time, and cognitive dysfunction would have been somewhat laughable a few years ago. The consequences of our new normal are dire and have a significant effect on our employees. 

Fatigue goes beyond stress.

Our typical coping mechanisms when we experience stress have all been ripped out of our hands. Long gone are the end-of-week happy hours, the recreational sports teams, the date nights with our spouses, and even the walk to lunch mid-day from the office. When work was stressful pre-pandemic — which, of course, it was — we had outlets and methods of coping. In addition to the lack of coping avenues is the constant decision-making, the weighing of potential outcomes of any given activity — who could get sick if I meet up with this client in person? These questions have been running on a loop in some corner of our minds constantly for two years.

Mental health issues like depression and anxiety continue to be on the rise. Substance abuse is, too, with 13% of adults reporting that they started or increased substance use to manage pandemic-related emotions as of June 2020. Suicide rates have also been on a steady incline — to the point where Christine Yu Moutier, Chief Medical Officer for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, says she is “very, very concerned,” adding, “This [the pandemic and the resulting consequences] has such a long, uncertain tail to it, and the exhaustion is real.” 

Leaders cannot ignore fatigue. 

Long gone are those first sweet weeks where we hoped that this would all blow over. When managers ignore these realities, for themselves or their employees, they send the message that they expect employees to continue working as they did pre-pandemic and set the expectation that we’re operating under “normal conditions.” Nothing about the last two years has been normal.

“Unfortunately, we recently found that 60% of leaders plan to revert back to the mental health strategy used pre-pandemic. This potential disconnect between the needs of employees and the intentions of leadership, could cause a backlash in 2022 if leaders don’t acknowledge and listen to the needs of their employees.”

Emily Payne, benefitspro.COM

Drastic times call for drastic measures. If the circumstances do not change, and at this point, it feels unlikely that much will change in the next year, it could be time to consider making significant changes in our approach to work. Some changes that are now part of the mainstream conversation would have seemed unthinkable a few short years ago. Consider the 4-day workweek, a departure from the 5-day week we’ve taken as a given for nearly a century. In addition to formal “experiments” in the UK and Iceland and legislation in California, many companies in the US are already trying a 4-day week. Whether or not it’s the right move for your company, the rise of the 4-day workweek is a signal that it’s time for bold experimentation.

Our employees and our leaders are at their breaking point. If ever there has been a moment to pivot toward a more human-centric work design that honors employees’ mental, physical, and emotional limits, it is now. The Industrial Revolution sparked a distinct shift in the way humans approach work — human beings became a commodity, a resource to expend in the pursuit of profit. We’re in the midst of an equally-revolutionary backlash to that way of thinking. To start, think about how to provide more flexibility, enable intentional collaboration, and stay committed to empathy-based management. Compassionate leadership is essential in our fatigue crisis. The reality we’re facing is, at best, a long road to recovery. More likely, however, is the need to enact lasting change in the way we work.

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