Preventing Employee Burnout in Stressful and Uncertain Times

Support Workers, Stay Optimistic, Carson College Faculty Expert Advises

By Eric Hollenbeck

Hana Johnson

Many businesses are feeling the squeeze of the national worker shortage. At the end of July, U.S. job openings reached a record high of 10.9 million. And while companies look to fill gaps in their workforces, experts say managers shouldn’t ignore the stress the pandemic has had on current employees who’ve taken on additional hours and responsibilities to help maintain “business as usual.”

Nearly two-thirds of workers say the pandemic has worsened employee burnout, according to the employment website Indeed. Chronic stress in the workplace can lead to exhaustion, negative attitudes about work, and reduced efficiency.

Hana Johnson, assistant professor of management at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, researches management issues in the field of workplace psychology. She shares practical advice for managers and supervisors looking to support their employees during stressful and uncertain times.

What issues have you observed over the past 18 months that have raised new challenges for managers/supervisors when it comes to leading and motivating employees?

One of the biggest emotional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increase in anxiety due to uncertainty about the future. For example, whether you have childcare options, what to do if you catch COVID, or if you are at risk of losing your job.

Have you looked into how changes in the workplace affect anxiety levels—things like disruptions caused by companies moving to remote work versus in-person?

One thing I’ve looked at is the effects of the pandemic by social class. This is the idea that if, for example, you are in an upper social class and hold a more “professional” job, then you’re likely to experience less anxiety related to work because you could telecommute. You could do your job successfully at home and not risk losing hours or salary, and you don’t risk getting sick by going to work in person.

What should managers and other leaders take into consideration when evaluating their own leadership style? What practical advice do you have for them?

I have research focused on leadership during times of crisis, and what I’ve found is that leaders who are able to respond appropriately during a crisis can help reduce the uncertainty that their employees experience which, in turn, decreases emotional exhaustion or burnout.

I recommend managers remain optimistic and keep a positive mindset about the current environment and their vision for the future. Mangers should recognize the seriousness of the situation and respond calmly, yet urgently, to reassure employees during uncertain times.

What can we learn from the pandemic in terms of supporting employees and reducing employee burnout?

There are practical things managers can do to support employees, like providing flexibility in work arrangements. Going back to the topic of childcare, for example, if you have an employee whose child is exposed to or diagnosed with COVID and has to be out of school, managers should respond quickly and make the necessary accommodations for that employee. Being responsive and flexible in providing those types of accommodations is important.

Finally, what do managers need to consider so that employees don’t feel like accommodations are being unfairly applied?

Transparency is key. Be upfront and clear about the procedures for making decisions so employees don’t feel like they’re in the dark, or make up stories to explain why somebody received some type of accommodation which others didn’t receive.