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Newsletter: Feeling burned out at work? It doesn’t have to be that way

A man talks on the phone while working on a computer
It’s unfair to put the onus on workers to avoid burnout, one expert says. Systemic changes in the workplace can alleviate the problem.
( Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, back with our weekly newsletter. Even before the pandemic hit the U.S., employee burnout was a problem in many workplaces.

Eight months ago, things got a lot worse — and workers are struggling to balance professional demands with child care, elder care and the psychological toll of the COVID-19 crisis. “Not only do we have more demands on us, but we have fewer resources,” says Laura Hamill, who is chief people officer and chief science officer at Limeade, an employee experience software company.

According to the Mayo Clinic, burned-out workers may have difficulty being consistently productive and may become irritated with their co-workers or clients. The effects can go beyond the workplace, the clinic says: Substance misuse and vulnerability to illness are two of the potential consequences.

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There’s no easy fix. “You can’t yoga your way out of burnout,” Hamill says. “It’s silly for us to put it on employees and say, ‘Go fix yourself.’”

A better route, she suggested: systemic changes in the workplace.

I spoke with Hamill and two other experts to learn what employers can do — and what employees can request — to address burnout:

Acknowledgment

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The first step? “Give it a name, and try to understand it,” Hamill says. Then, she said, employers should “start showing their employees that they authentically care about them.”

Hamill says Limeade has offered its managers a discussion guide for talking about well-being with their workers. “One-on-ones and team meetings really need to be more about ‘How are you doing? How’s your well-being? What are some things we could do together to improve?’” rather than discussing only work, Hamill says.

Tamara Lewis, vice president of talent and culture at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, agrees that talking about burnout openly is a good step. She says managers at the foundation, which focuses on improving the lives of people living in poverty, have been asked to reach out to workers who may be especially affected by the pandemic or by racial injustice and to solicit feedback and suggestions from employees.

Reevaluating goals

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At many places that have made the switch to remote work, “there’s a sense [among executives] that this is business as usual” even as employees are actually struggling to manage their workloads, Lewis says. That’s in part because many executives can afford extra support — with child care and other personal duties that have intensified during the pandemic — that many lower-paid workers can’t access, she says.

Lewis recommends that organization leaders take a hard look at their goals for the year and consider whether they really need to meet all the targets they established pre-pandemic. “We need to give people space to be human beings during these challenging times,” she says. “Otherwise people are going to be working around the clock trying to live up to this [notion of] business as usual.”

Lewis says the Hilton foundation, for example, has changed its performance evaluations to focus on offering a path to improvement for employees who are struggling. “Lower-level performance ratings” have been eliminated; instead of rating workers poorly, managers are encouraged to create a plan with them.

Employers that treat their workers humanely during this time can expect better retention, Hamill says. “All employees are going to remember how they were treated … If they don’t feel supported or cared for, and they have another opportunity, they’re going to take it.”

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Flexibility

Being flexible about schedules is another way to support employees, especially during the pandemic, Lewis says. She advises that managers “get to know where people are struggling ... If a mom is at home, and she has to help the kids during the morning, maybe we don’t have morning meetings anymore.”

Similarly, Lewis advises that leaders worry less about work hours and more about team objectives. If a project needs to be completed, she suggests, managers should focus on meeting the overall deadline and feel comfortable letting workers get it done at times of day that suit their schedules.

In addition, it may make sense for some employees to trim their hours temporarily, says Patty Alper, the author of “Teach to Work,” a book about mentorship and career growth. “They could cut back to 30 hours a week” and go back to full time after the pandemic, she says.

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Support

Employee resource groups can also help manage burnout. “It is so important for employees to connect with one another, to connect with their managers, to connect with their leaders,” Hamill says.

For example, Hamill said she has found Limeade’s working parents resource group to be a particularly effective avenue of support. “It is mind-blowing how much [participants] care about each other and support each other and can really relate to one another,” she says.

In addition, creating a mentorship program can help avoid burnout, Alper says. “If you have 50 people working under you, you could assign 10 of them to mentor five others.”

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Alper specifically recommends structuring a company mentorship program around projects that mentor-mentee pairs can complete together. Having a learning opportunity can often serve as an antidote to burnout, and the program doesn’t need to take up a ton of time, Alper says: “Starting a mentorship program for even a small office could be demanding as little as 45 minutes a week.”

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One more thing

Charities have been unable to hold in-person fundraising events during the pandemic — and many are seriously struggling. Candid, a nonprofit that tracks philanthropy, has estimated that nearly 4 in 10 nonprofits could close in the next three years because of a lack of funding.

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Some charities are coming up with imaginative solutions to help secure their survival. Ronald D. White spoke with leaders from four nonprofits to learn how they’re making it through this time.

Some creative fundraising efforts: a remote rowing event and a virtual game show.

Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at californiainc@latimes.com, and we may include it in a future newsletter.


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