Two years and counting since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, workplaces still grapple with what the new normal looks like.
How should they support their employees’ well-being? Which of the changes implemented due to COVID, such as flexible scheduling and remote work, should continue?
Employees are paying attention to the answers. A Gallup poll in February of this year found that fewer than 25% of workers “strongly agree” that their employer cares about their well-being. At the height of pandemic lockdowns in May 2020, nearly 50% strongly agreed that they felt cared for. Gallup notes that employees who feel that they are cared for and supported by their workplace are about 70% less likely to be seeking a new job or experiencing burnout, and are three times more likely to be engaged at work.
How can workplaces demonstrate that they value employees? An important way to support workers is to recognize the signs of burnout and understand how managers and co-workers can foster a caring workplace environment.
“Burnout is a word that gets thrown around a lot,” says Brian Baird, a clinical psychologist and former congressman from Washington state. “People say, ‘Oh, I’m really burned out.’ But there are specific factors that researchers define as the areas of burnout.”
Baird told an NCSL web meeting that workplace burnout can manifest as symptoms in one or all of three main areas: exhaustion and lack of energy; alienation from work activities and feeling numb; and reduced performance of tasks. These symptoms can lead to “a sense of loss of meaning in the job: ‘I’m not sure I feel that this job is satisfying or purposeful to me anymore,’” he said.
‘Not an Either-Or’
“Burnout is not an either-or, it’s not like a switch gets thrown. It is a collection of experiences and attitudes and reactions you can have somewhere on a continuum. You can feel some degree of burnout or no degree of burnout,” Baird said.
Factors in the workplace that contribute to burnout include unclear performance expectations; demand that exceeds available resources; lack of ability for employees to share ideas and concerns horizontally and vertically; and lack of recognition for effort and achievement.
“As a team leader, if you look at factors that contribute to burnout, you also have a road map of factors that, if you address them, you can reduce the frequency and incidence of burnout among your staff,” Baird said.
He said burnout is more likely if “there is no sense of personal reward, intrinsic reward, over and above pay. Give people an intrinsic reward of purpose, of mission, and you’re more likely to succeed.”
Give people an intrinsic reward of purpose, of mission, and you’re more likely to succeed. —Brian Baird, clinical psychologist
Baird acknowledged the unique circumstances of public servants such as legislators and legislative staff and the challenges they can face. “Secondary traumatization is when you experience it vicariously. If you spend all day trying to help people who are experiencing personal trauma, that will affect you.
“The other thing that can happen is what’s called compassion fatigue,” he said. “If you spend all of your day giving to others, putting out energy to other people, eventually there is nothing more to give, and you can wear out from that.”
Baird encouraged continued remote participation to allow staff the flexibility to manage their workloads and care for themselves. And he emphasized the importance of a strong workplace culture that makes employees feel safe.
“How are we going to build a team and organizational and agency culture that helps prevent burnout and supports staff? If you’re a leader, sit down with your team and go over these things,” Baird said. “(Say) ‘I want to make sure you’re taking care of yourself and your family while you’re doing this job.’ Think about the power of that simple phrase if it’s meant sincerely and backed up by true support.”
Katie Ziegler works on outreach and engagement in NCSL’s Communications Division.