By Nicol Myburgh, Head: HCM Business Unit at CRS Technologies
Tired. Exhausted. Fatigued. Worn out. Burned out. Done.
There is one thing that people are more tired of hearing about than the pandemic. Another video meeting. Another Zoom call. Another Teams request. With good reason. A recent peer-reviewed article in Technology, Mind and Behaviour  found that videoconferencing activities are exhausting because they’re intense, immobile and mentally demanding.
The researcher found that the constant intense eye contact, staring at our own images and trying to interpret barrages of limited non-verbal cues are draining individual resources. Plus, this is not the only cause of pandemic stress and anxiety. People are burned out, overworked, and anxious. If managers took a look out the virtual window they’d see a sea of red flags, raised by people struggling to find stability and sanity.
It’s impossible for managers or leaders to know what employees are going through in this pandemic. Nobody is super human, everyone is experiencing different symptoms that can range from loneliness to anxiety to financial stress. So, the first step is to show people that business leaders and line managers are listening by checking in with them. Even if they can’t do anything about it, the fact that someone is willing to listen makes a huge difference.
It’s also important to recognise the signs of burnout and emotional distress. A lot of people went into remote working believing that it would be more relaxed and, initially, it was. It was different, it was exciting. Then, as things continued with the virus introducing new variants, lockdowns being extended, and workplaces introducing increasingly strict controls, the pandemic introduced heightened stress levels, loneliness and depression.
Research has found that people were feeling isolated and frustrated. They have no fun interaction with colleagues at work, now it’s just juggling work and family life in a confined space. There’s no break, no commute to create a break between office and life. The disruption wasn’t just to the office, but to the home, and people didn’t have the tools to manage both.
This is just one setback. The other is even more pervasive – burnout. Employees have started working longer hours as they can’t switch off their computers, their phones are always on, making them always accessible to clients.
If employees are experiencing these issues, it can affect the bottom line of the company. The danger is that the company runs the risk of being hit financially if its workforce is disengaged, and the people can potentially just leave. Or worse, self-harm. This is definitely a growing threat in the business, and it’s become absolutely critical for companies to focus on the softer skills of empathy and compassion. Everyone is in the same boat.
One way of mitigating some of the stress is to offer informal counselling to your staff. By allowing people to connect with a professional counsellor, you are giving them space to deal with the isolation and fatigue, a space where they can feel heard and respected. Also work toward reducing the volume of videoconferencing meetings, give people the time they need to switch off and just do their jobs. If these meetings are essential, consider removing video to reduce eye strain and mental fatigue. Then tie up these steps by building a company culture that doesn’t expect people to be available 24/7, but instead gives them the space they need to live, manage their admin and turn off their work brains.
Set reasonable boundaries with clients, ensure they only contact your employees in working hours and support your employees when they draw those boundaries. If an employee says no to a client, and the client complains, be on your employee’s side – if this is outside working hours. Don’t play hardball and take the legal tack on working hours and approaches. You can absolutely realise employee potential if you respect their skills and measure their performance on their outcomes.
Structure is important right now. As are boundaries, open communication, transparency and social interaction. Find ways of providing your people with support through informal counselling, or social engagements, or just listening. And be aware of the strain they’re feeling. It’s not going to end any time soon, so if you build a company that respects these challenges today, you’ll have a truly engaged and loyal workforce tomorrow. One that isn’t burned out, broken and exhausted.