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Employee burnout has always been a concern, but COVID-19 has made it even worse. Here's what you can do to help.

Employees are still burnt out from the pandemic

Chanda Vaniman moved to Southern Utah to get away from it all, unfortunately her burnout followed her here.

Vaniman, a yoga instructor and exercise physiologist who now works for Intermountain Healthcare, believed that moving to a state with five national parks, dozens of state parks, as well as trails and bike paths galore would mean plenty of restorative time outdoors spent hiking and biking. And in many ways, she says, it was that.

Yet Vaniman says the push to spend her evenings and weekends outside made her feel even more overwhelmed. As she tried to juggle a full-time job, school, and time with friends and family as well as her new hobbies, Vaniman says she increasingly felt as though she “was not performing well at anything.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases in 2019, marking it a global health concern just in time for the burnout epidemic experienced by many workers over the past year. Despite consistently high scores in traditional measures of wellness and quality of life, Utah has not been immune to burnout and instead shows signs of an unprecedented decline in employee wellbeing alongside neighboring states.

Utah does maintain several advantages over other states, such as ease of access to recreation and strong community institutions, which experts agree should serve as a safeguard against employee burnout. But understanding what happened during the pandemic, they say, requires a better understanding of what burnout is and what causes it—and why recreation alone can’t cure it.

Employee burnout has always been a concern, but COVID-19 has made it even worse. Here's what you can do to help.

Higher engagement, higher risk

Despite adding a definition of burnout to its 11th edition of the International Classification of Disease, the WHO is quick to clarify that burnout isn’t technically a medical or mental health condition. Think of it as more of an occupational hazard.

Employees with burnout can be identified by the condition’s three main symptoms: chronic feelings of exhaustion and failure, decreased interest in or even cynicism toward one’s work, and reduced job performance. These symptoms can cause a person to become more vulnerable to developing other physical and mental health conditions, according to Michael Leiter, a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Canada who has studied burnout extensively. But while the two can bleed into one another, he says burnout is a distinct phenomenon separate from mental health conditions such as depression.

Leiter says that burnout is different from depression in that it’s specific to work-related issues. While both burnout and depression might cause low mood or reduced productivity, people experiencing burnout continue to function well in non-work settings. They still enjoy recreation or time with family. Depression, Leiter says, “is a whole other thing.”

Paul Thielking, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah, agrees. “It’s a little hard to simplify this because, sometimes when people get really burned out, they don’t necessarily bounce back on the weekend,” he says. “But in terms of making a distinction, if you’re able to look forward to enjoying the weekend or spending time with family, maybe this is more like burnout.” 

Individuals feeling a broader sense of hopelessness about life or experiencing suicidal thoughts should seek a professional assessment with their primary care physician or similar, Thielking says.

It’s difficult to quantify how many workers experience burnout, so the researchers at Gallup rely on a handful of different metrics: workforce turnover, employee engagement, and overall population wellbeing. This is where Utah tends to shine, according to Dan Witters, research director for the Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index: Gallup’s most recent data ranked Utah as the 6th-best state in the nation for overall adult wellbeing and ranked 2nd overall for career satisfaction, bested only by Hawaii.

But here’s where the data gets sticky, according to Ben Wigert, an industrial-organizational psychologist who is researching burnout for Gallup. Wigert believes burnout has increased steadily around the world since 2016, and exploded during the 2020 pandemic. Yet the data that should reflect this is split. Overall life satisfaction plunged ten percentage points last spring—a drop larger than any other period measured by Gallup, including the Great Recession. But employee engagement increased.

Wigert thinks this data points to something he has long suspected: highly engaged and productive employees, the ones who may seem to have everything put together, are also at the highest risk of burning out.

Employee burnout has always been a concern, but COVID-19 has made it even worse. Here's what you can do to help.

Understanding burnout

Jake Free, Utah area manager for staffing agency Robert Half, says that some of the same attributes which gifted Utah with high employee wellbeing prior to the pandemic, may have set the state up for a shock when the pandemic itself hit.

Many of the state’s many tech companies, Free says, have enticed employees and combated burnout with unlimited vacation time policies. Managers often over-hired to give employees a chance to use their time off, and prior to COVID-19, this was a pretty effective strategy.

But when the pandemic hit, local employers reduced their headcount to prepare for an economic downturn that never entirely arrived in Utah. Work didn’t slow down, and employers largely expected their reduced workforce to meet the same expectations as before. This resulted in a sudden increase in work for the remaining employees, Free says, and employees may have felt they needed to work harder and longer to keep their jobs.

“For the first six months, it was fine,” Free says. “They were just happy to have jobs. But six months later people started feeling that burnout.”

Overworking and a lack of work-life balance do play important roles in the development of burnout. When someone feels that work has prevented them from fulfilling personal responsibilities, for example, that can lead to diminished feelings that an individual has control and autonomy in life, which leads to burnout. 

But there are also other significant factors. According to a study by Gallup, feeling mistreated at work, lacking role clarity or accountability, and lacking support from management all ranked alongside unreasonable deadlines and excessive workload as the top five factors contributing to employee burnout. Employees may also become burned out if they feel isolated at work or when they’re asked to spend a great deal of time on tasks that do not align with their personal strengths or interests.

However, overbearing, micromanaging bosses are hardly a new thing so what explains the uptick in employee burnout since 2016? Experts blame technology.

At the University of Utah, Thielking says, electronic medical records have become a source of stress and burnout among physicians. Doctors who entered the medical field to help and interact with patients, now find they spend most of their time writing reports.

“For a lot of doctors, it’s those patient interactions and being in that helpful role that is most rewarding,” Thielking says. “A lot of the connection and personal interaction is being replaced by sitting in front of a computer screen typing notes or other documentation, and that’s a huge source of dissatisfaction in the medical field.”

Some doctors have tried to regain the sense of purpose that drew them to the profession by taking their charts home with them to complete in the evening, but this only adds to their working hours and contributes to the frustration they feel, Thielking says. And it’s not just the medical profession—across a wide swath of professions, according to Wigert, workers report that technology has eroded their sense of work-life balance and either increased the number of hours they work, or supplanted work they enjoyed doing with time spent on a computer or cell phone.

“People have more demands than ever because their work is following them home,” Wigert says. “I look at technology and how organization structure works, and people tend to be doing multiple jobs right now… We hear that all the time in focus groups. We see tears because people feel like they can’t work any faster and they’re not doing enough, and when they’re doing that they’re neglecting their families and friends.”

Employee burnout has always been a concern, but COVID-19 has made it even worse. Here's what you can do to help.

The burnout cure

While much has been said about self-care, yoga, and taking vacation time, these actions alone won’t relieve burnout if the underlying causes aren’t addressed says Leiter. 

“Really addressing burnout means improving the connection of people to their work,” he says. “Advice to meditate and exercise is good advice in general and may help people tolerate a bad situation, but the root of the problem persists. A break from work can help alleviate exhaustion, but exhaustion will return if the workload is not manageable.”

This is where Utah’s strengths—its family- and recreation-centric culture—can also become a weakness, Wigert says. Because of the ready access to these resources, managers may be tempted to punt on the burnout question and blame employee distress on a lack of self-care. In the absence of improved management and workplace culture, he says, telling employees to go outside or take up yoga can come across like adding even more expectations to their already overflowing plate.

This isn’t to say that these solutions can’t be effective, according to Vaninman, who teaches yoga and meditation classes at Intermountain Healthcare.

The prevailing theory on why outdoor recreation contributes to human wellbeing rests on a theory called “soft fascination,” according to Jim Sibthrop, a professor of parks, recreation, and tourism at the University of Utah. The idea is that being in nature is something that holds our interest as humans—we appreciate the beauty of a seascape or mountain range—but it doesn’t require active mental processing. You might enjoy looking at the ocean, Sibthrop says, but you probably aren’t counting the number of waves you see.

For the modern workforce, doing something engaging that is not mentally taxing is restorative. It’s like a runner resting their muscles by skipping a day on the treadmill to swim laps. Outdoor recreation can come with the added bonus of helping employees escape the constant demands of their cell phones, Sibthorp says.

Employee burnout has always been a concern, but COVID-19 has made it even worse. Here's what you can do to help.

But the great outdoors—or any other practice touted as a cure for burnout—comes with limits. A scientist who studies plants is not going to feel rested simply by virtue of being outside, if they’ve gone outside to collect data. Or outdoor recreation might simply be a bad fit for, say, an individual who is afraid of bugs. The pursuit of inner peace can also be disrupted, Sibthorp says, if it’s turned into a performative or competitive task where the main objective is to impress one’s friends on Instagram.

“What you’re really trying to find are things people do from a place of intrinsic motivation or passion,” Sibthorp says. “That fuels your ability to keep going. When people are burned out, the thing they’re doing takes more energy from them than it generates, so they need to generate energy in other ways.”

This is where the concept of mindfulness comes into play. Mindfulness, Vaniman says, is not clearing one’s head to push down feelings of stress, anxiety, and burnout, although some have attempted to treat it that way. Rather, mindfulness is a skill that helps the practitioner live in the present, taking care to notice the feelings they are having at that moment without judgment.

“The point of it is being aware that I need a break,” Vaniman says, “and being aware that I feel like I can’t take a break or everything will fall apart if I leave.”

Mindfulness, she says, is the art of discerning what an individual really wants, from what society has told them they should want. By helping the practitioner identify what makes them feel depleted and what makes them feel rested, mindfulness enables people to live more deliberately, making conscious choices about what kinds of work and hobbies—and how much of each—they need in their lives. 

For some, including Thielking, the pandemic brought with it an opportunity to learn mindfulness and take stock of the sort of life they truly want to live, by helping them to understand what activities they missed, and what they did not. 

But that hasn’t been the case for everyone, and Wiget warns that employees setting more deliberate boundaries about work-life balance is only one side of the burnout equation. If businesses don’t take steps to correct the workplace factors that lead to burnout, he says, employees might find that gaining a little mindful perspective on their situation leads them to the conclusion that they need a change of professional scenery.

“Often people think about how many hours they’re working or that they need a vacation or a break,” Wiget says, “and those are important. But if they come back to the same situation—unclear work expectations, overwork, lack of priories and support, then maybe the next time they take time off, they take it off to seek another job.”

Employee burnout has always been a concern, but COVID-19 has made it even worse. Here's what you can do to help.

Emma Penrod is a journalist based in rural Utah who covers science, technology, business and environmental health. She writes a weekly water politics newsletter at pactio.us/host/emma-penrod and Tweets about the latest science and industry news @EmaPen. When she's not writing, reading or researching, she's hunting sagebrush-scented air fresheners.