What’s the biggest challenge facing people in lockdown?

From conversations I’ve had with clients and friends and from information shared on social media, it seems to me that the biggest challenge facing everyone right now is…

BURNOUT.

If someone on your team is showing signs of burnout, you may be wondering if it’s even possible to let them take time out – or to take time out for yourself if you’re also struggling.

To consider this challenge from multiple perspectives, I organised a chat with Emma Prime and Anca Costin. Emma is a highly experienced psychologist, and Anca is a respected barrister specialising in employment and commercial law.

Here I’ll share our different perspectives on whether allowing someone to continue working while burnt out, or continuing to work yourself when you feel burnt out, is the right approach…

Workplace performance impacts (Kim)

Some people equate overworking, or workaholism, with high performance. In a normal work environment, this can often be kept under check because there is sufficient separation between work and home. However, during a lockdown, this separation is removed. So the instinct to work overtime can quickly spiral out of control and ultimately lead to burnout.

For many high performers, the idea of taking time out seems indulgent. They may also consider themselves to be highly resilient and believe:

  • resilient people don’t take time out
  • resilient people don’t get stressed
  • a person is either resilient, or they are not

Of course, these are all myths. And from a coaching perspective, recognising the need to stop is an attribute of true resilience – because taking time out is essential for sustaining high performance. 

Taking time out means different things to different people. For some, it could be taking a break at lunch or a few hours off in the afternoon. For others, it could be an extended weekend or even a week off.

Food for thought: Reframe the way you think about time off. Instead of seeing it as self-indulgent, see it as a way to maintain your and your team’s performance during a lockdown. Instead of asking, “Can I afford to take time out?”, consider “Can I afford not to take time out?”.

Psychological impacts (Emma)

Smartphones are incredibly valuable in today’s world. We rely on them extensively and love that they keep us connected in work and our personal lives. However, can your smartphone add any value to you if you let its battery run flat?

I often encourage people to consider this analogy in terms of their self-care and whether they can really continue to support others effectively if they let themselves run flat.  

Every now and then, we all need to plug in and recharge. For you, this could mean going for a walk, playing music, cooking, being with kids, watching a movie, or making a cup of tea. Eco-therapy (getting outside) is especially helpful.

Of course, time out is not real time out if you spend all your time thinking about work. This is where a strategy such as mindfulness can be great because it reminds you to focus on your surroundings or the activity you’re doing, so your body (and mind) get the opportunity to relax properly.

Food for thought: Remote working appears to be here to stay, so accepting this allows us to start putting in place sustainable strategies that include self-care. This might mean upgrading your home office, setting a routine, creating boundaries, and committing to self-care.

From an organisational point of view, support measures could include being very clear on role expectations, performance measures, and appropriate workloads. Communication is also vital – be it through break out chats, wellbeing emails, regular check-ins, or other initiatives that keep people connected.

Legal impacts (Anca)

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, whether they are working at home or in the office. With this in mind, it’s important for managers to keep an eye on how their people are coping.

If you notice someone is working ridiculous hours – such as answering emails at all hours of the day and night – then it’s clear they are working outside an agreed pattern of work. In this case, have a talk with them and make a note that you have. Even if the employee doesn’t want to take your advice, this simple step could prove valuable later on if burnout becomes emotional distress.

Where it’s clear that an employee is not coping, make a note with HR and organise a discussion. Be clear that it’s not performance related, but ask them how they are doing and potentially recommend that they take time off. You can suggest a length of time or let the employee say what they need.

For some employees, it may be necessary to recommend that they see their GP, and require a medical certificate stating that they’re fit for work before they can return.

Food for thought: From a legal perspective, burnout is not something you can afford to ignore. Instead, follow normal HR processes and seek to develop new policies which clarify remote working guidelines for employees at all levels of the organisation.

Don’t be afraid to performance manage, but be prepared to account for individual circumstances – such as a parent’s need to home school around work commitments.

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