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Pandemic Fallout: Companies and Workers Confront Burnout and Stress

Employers and employees are still battling exhaustion and work-related stress as they struggle to adapt to the new normal.

By Grace Olson  |  June 19, 2024

During the pandemic, nearly everyone experienced heightened burnout in their work, forcing companies to do a lot of damage control they weren’t prepared for, says organizational and leadership coach Melissa Furman.

“The pandemic amplified and accelerated additional disruptors, and the disruption continues to happen,” she says. “As a result, relevant modern day leadership skills are needed more than ever.”

Furman is the founder of Career Potential, an organization to equip individuals with the skills to succeed. She recently discussed her work on NCSL’s “Our American States” podcast, sharing insights on how companies are handling challenges in a post-pandemic world.

Furman says many companies were unprepared for the pandemic’s impact and didn’t hone important leadership skills to deal with change and uncertainty.

“Leaders need to learn how to function in an ever-changing environment, and most leadership training theories out there really didn’t touch on this,” she says. “A lot of leaders today are using the old skills and tools they’ve always used, and that’s really not applicable or relevant.”

Another change leaders face today is creating a supportive workplace for diverse groups and employees.

“We have the most diverse workforce and constituency in the history of America, and many leadership theories and training were not designed with diverse populations in mind,” Furman says. “Most of them were designed for a very standardized group, so are leaders ready to lead in different ways to be more inclusive and to lead in this ever-changing environment?”

Companies also continue to deal with employees who feel uninspired and stressed by their work. Furman says the pandemic opened leaders’ eyes to the importance of mental health and creating a positive workplace environment.

“People are functioning at their tipping point and the slightest challenge or stress has them bubbling over,” she says. “This is creating some challenges for leaders as they are trying to navigate and manage folks, even constituents, who have heightened levels of burnout.”

Leaders themselves are experiencing burnout, too, and must learn how to manage their own anxiety while providing a supportive work environment for their teams.

“Leaders need to know how to help others navigate this prolonged psychological stress that they are finding themselves in,” Furman says. “They need to be stopping and thinking, ‘Do I have what it takes to lead?’ And if they don’t, they need to be looking at ways that they can get those skills.”

Stress management strategies vary from person to person, and Furman advises everyone to find what works best for them to recharge outside of the office. Strategies may include practicing self-care, confronting the root cause of anxiety, or reframing one’s mindset.

Some leaders still struggle to reduce workplace stress and show empathy for employees facing mental health challenges.

“I’ve seen 50% of leaders who still have a very authoritarian directive mindset of ‘check your emotions at the door,’” Furman says.

Despite these challenges, Furman says she’s optimistic about the future of leadership and that she’s been impressed by how well companies and individuals adapted to the pandemic’s chaos.

“Leadership is easy when things are going well, but when things get tough, the true leaders rise to the occasion.”

Grace Olson is an intern in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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