With a steep rise in reports of employee exhaustion and demotivation over the past year, Karen Plum explores the science behind burnout and what the future holds for remote working.
The development and speedy roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine is a cause for plenty of optimism after a traumatic year. But we’re not in the clear just yet. The government recently poured cold water on expectations that lockdown will end soon, stressing the need for a “cautious and prudent approach” based on data.
With no finishing line in sight, there is growing pressure on employers to keep their dispersed teams happy, motivated and energised in a period that has the potential to push many people to breaking point. The pandemic has had a considerable effect on the public’s wellbeing. Late last year, Google data revealed a marked increase throughout 2020 in the number of searches with terms like “signs of burnout”. As lockdown continues, feelings of exhaustion and demotivation are only likely to multiply.
Unpredictability puts a strain on our brains
Neuroscience can help us understand what’s going on. The brain is an incredibly resilient tool that works on a prediction loop. Routine and repetition help us learn and navigate the world. The brain conserves energy on the tasks that become second nature, leaving room for neurons to tackle new threats.
When our environment becomes unpredictable and our brain suddenly faces the unfamiliar it expends more energy, working overtime to process the new information. This helps explain why periods of uncertainty, as with this pandemic, can make us feel extra stress or mental fatigue. It’s a fast-moving situation full of surprises. We’ve experienced a taste of freedom only to have it snatched away again. We’re anxious about the health of loved ones. We’re worried about job security and money. It’s no wonder that people’s energy and motivation is starting to lag.
Empathy, knowledge and tools
The first step for organisations should be to empathise with their employees and understand what they’re going through. While people work from home they can get into bad habits, especially during times of extreme change or upheaval. The extra pressure on the brain makes it more difficult to focus or complete tasks. When people work alone, away from the camaraderie and support of colleagues, they are also more likely to beat themselves up over their inability to perform and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle.
HR leaders must make a conscious effort to ensure that colleagues have all the knowledge and tools they need to maintain cognitive performance as best they can. Our research in this area has revealed that several physiological and environmental factors impact brainpower. Diet, hydration, too little (or too much) caffeine, insufficient sleep, and lack of exercise can make a significant difference. Bad lighting and too many distractions, like noisy housemates, needy pets, and children in virtual classrooms, also affect our cognitive energy levels.
Of course, managers have very little real control over these factors, especially when people work virtually. At best, they can encourage staff to pay attention to these elements and look after themselves. However, organisations can turn to some proxy measures to maintain motivation and engagement within their teams. More of our own research into knowledge worker productivity has found that developing social cohesion and trust up, down and across organisations spurs people to share knowledge and collaborate more effectively.
Why a realistic outlook is important
At the same time, it is impossible to ignore that many people have adapted well to their new virtual work environment. There is near-universal agreement that most organisations will adopt a hybrid model work model once the pandemic is over, giving people more control over where and how they work. If employers do not work with HR leaders to manage the change and guide people through it, it could mean yet more uncertainty and even greater risk of burnout.
The key is to keep communicating, keep educating, and be realistic with expectations. HR leaders need to encourage openness and honesty while recognising the importance of building and nurturing relationships.
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