When getting hit by a car seemed like a good idea to solve my work situation, I knew I had a problem.
Several years ago, I found myself juggling remote employees across a half dozen countries with upset clients across the globe. The stress led to emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. I felt overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with the growing list of items on my “to-do” list.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing all the symptoms of burnout. I did know I wanted it to stop—which is what led to those odd daydreams about getting hurt. Thankfully the particular project that had so fully absorbed me eventually collapsed under its own absurd weight. But it took me years to get over that experience.
I recently revisited this difficult time in my life as I was writing my first book about global business challenges especially when working and communicating with people from different parts of the world. My nightmare work story was one example about how projects can fail so spectacularly based on poor communication within distributed teams. It is clear to me now that we weren’t communicating about burnout, and it was hurting the work, and hurting us.
Why didn’t I put more emphasis on burnout? Maybe it scared me to go there. I told myself that I wanted to focus on the business objectives, not the mental struggles. This is my fear today, that in the midst of a pandemic and an accompanying economic crisis, we’re going to focus on business objectives without taking into account the human objectives, like avoiding burnout.
A survey conducted in the middle of May by Statista found that 27% of US respondents considered their mental health to be among their main worries or concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Some may feel that they have too many things to do and not enough time to get everything done. Then there are the compounding issues outside of work, from what to do about the kids, or our financial insecurities, or not being able to see friends and relatives. The stress can make even seemingly small tasks start to feel overwhelming.
Social distancing may reduce the spread of a virus but it also increases the spread of burnout. So what can be done to identify and avoid burnout either for yourself or for work colleagues?
A simple starting point is to be on the lookout for unusual behavior. Employees who are usually dependable might start making uncharacteristically simple mistakes or not completing basic tasks. Under stress, talkative people tend to talk more, while people who tend not to speak up get quieter. Simmering tensions between remote teammates can quickly boil into fights that can ruin relationships and wreck projects. Also be on the lookout for increased levels of passive-aggressive behavior.
While it’s advisable to try and reduce conference calls whenever possible, more time should be taken for one-on-one conversations either with your team leader, a mentor, or another trusted advisor. Also consider establishing an early warning system where people on your team are encouraged to be on the lookout for each other’s stress levels. This might involve investing time to better understand team members’ behavioral styles and what specifically causes them to get stressed, as this can vary from person to person. (DISC is one framework I find helpful.) From there, make it clear that it is ok to reach out to the team lead if a fellow team member is showing signs of stress.
Right now we all should be seeking ways to reduce pressure. Personally, I find it’s helpful to break down large projects into small and manageable chunks and celebrate successful milestones each step along the way. The bookshelves that are so often joked about in peoples’ video call backgrounds provide an apt metaphor here. If your bookshelf is filled, the only way to add a new book is to take an existing one away. The same goes for a full workload.
As we begin heading back out into the world many of us will be wearing face masks, but that doesn’t mean we need to cover up what we’re really going through. Yes, there will be variations as to how companies and individuals will be willing to be vulnerable and talk about burnout, but the first step is to open up and start to have an honest conversation about how you are doing.
Kyle Hegarty is the managing director of Leadership Nomad, part of TSL Marketing. He is the author of the new book, “The Accidental Business Nomad: A Survival Guide for Working Across a Shrinking Planet.”