Burnout is simply much more likely to happen in the current situation. Most believe that the primary cause of burnout is workload, but that’s not always the case. For most, burnout is caused by a lack of connection to their work. These times are challenging our connection and sense of impact. Communication became non-trivial and sometimes flaky and this underlies many things. We lost much of the default micro-feedback we get when working in the same room. This manifests as disengagement, feeling undervalued, or that you’re not working on something meaningful. Broken communication can also result in feeling you can’t be open with colleagues and managers and must bottle everything up. We sometimes lose our sense of identity and become reactive.
Burnout impacts self-awareness. When you are burnt out it becomes quite hard to tell if you are burnt out. No one is immune to this: CEOs, VPs, managers, individual contributors are prone to it.
What worked so far may not work now. We all have varying approaches to self-care with varying degrees of efficacy. The person who “just barely held it together” pre-covid may be pushed over their limit.
Some are experiencing a deep sense of guilt, especially in tech. They have a job while others do not anymore. It feels trivial to complain when others are suffering so much. Grin and bear. This is a recipe for burnout.
Coping with all this as a people manager
You need to talk about it – out in the open.
People will interpret company goals and situations in very different ways. Some engineers will fear really adverse impacts if a goal is missed. Others will assume their manager and their organization will obviously understand, it is a pandemic, right? You need to be open about expectations and your (and the organization’s) support in this situation. Don’t assume people would know.
This situation is highly complex. Don’t assume you can consider everything.
COVID already has massive impacts on job and housing markets, childcare, vacation habits, and how people socialize. It is impossible to piece this all together in the middle of this whirlwind. Your colleagues (and you!) are caught in this swirl of “what ifs”. You will be surprised and shocked. Keep the dialog and your mind open. It’s OK if you didn’t think of something. You never know what is going on at someone’s home. The colleague with a great salary may be paying their whole family’s bills now. The whole family may be out of work. As always it is easy and dangerous to jump to conclusions. There are all kinds of potential “cascades” that can spring up. Stressing on how great it was to hit a recent goal may set in motion a cascade of additional guilt, burnout, and attrition.
People will have different views on this
Don’t expect that everyone has the same view on the situation. You’ll have colleagues who see this as a “ruined summer”. Others will see the unraveling of democracy, or other kinds of life-defining, tragic moments. Some interpret distancing and lockdown a life-as-normal but with a mask, some others as “I haven’t left the house in 150 days”. People had and have varied experiences, from “I don’t know what to do with all this time suddenly” to parents feeling “I had five minutes to take a shower two days ago”. You have to listen and respect. Your view is only one view.
Showing vulnerability goes a long way!
We as leaders want to set a good example and be “strong and supportive”. Thus we don’t necessarily share just how messed up things are at home (or at work, for that matter). This can have adverse effects. Your colleagues will wonder… “is it just me?” – “How come they are holding it together so well?”. You obviously don’t need to turn your 1:1s into therapy sessions but try showing that you’re in this together and it’s OK to be affected by the situation. This is one of the foundations of building trust and not specific to COVID but is exponentially important now.
Care and self-care are extremely important now
Some people respond to this current situation like: “I am going to grin and bear it, for now, work my ass off, and when this clears I’ll take a well-deserved break.” A tempting recipe for burnout. It may not clear up. This is true for you, too! It’s your job to make sure your team is OK. Your usual management feedback loops can break down. Burnout is tricky. It suddenly creeps up on people and once it hits can take weeks or months to unwind. This challenges normal “sense and respond” techniques or efforts to “balance the energy”. Don’t put off self-care or things that give you strength. People are delaying important life decisions until “when this clears up.” which contributes to a sense of suspended reality and time. This impacts “present thinking” by putting the “brighter things” in the future.