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For many managers, the necessity to oversee a team remotely has been a big adjustment. Whilst it is true that some professionals will have managed in this way pre-pandemic, e.g. those who oversee global teams, it is fairly unusual to manage people who are all home-based, as opposed to working amongst colleagues in a local office.
For this reason, even some of the most experienced managers are likely to have encountered challenges since their team has been working remotely, particularly around monitoring productivity, managing performance and their pastoral duties. One notable issue which touches on all three of these areas is burnout. This can be particularly exacerbated by the necessity to work from home; although cutting out the commute can feel initially more comfortable for individuals, the flip side of this it has led to many working longer hours as a result, and also reporting fatigue from communicating through video conferencing platforms throughout the day.
Burnout can also be infectious, especially if it gets so chronic that staff are needing to take sickness leave and then reducing the resource pool even further. With this in mind, it is more important than ever to be able to spot the signs and know how to deal with them with team members still working at home.
Here are some ways to help your staff if they are feeling overwhelmed and how to deal with burnout:
Most experts agree that 70-90% of most people’s communications are non-verbal. This means that if you are working in an office with someone you manage, you may well spot that they are suffering from burnout before they tell you themselves, even just from their body language or demeanour. However, when managing remotely, you do not have this luxury. Although many of us have utilised video interview platforms during lockdown, there is only so much you can pick up from a screen and so much time you can spend in meetings each day when deadlines are stacking up. For this reason, you should think carefully about how you are communicating with staff, both in terms of frequency, content and candour of your conversations.
At busy times of the year, it is natural that your chats could be very task-orientated. Whilst it is clearly important to be keeping a handle on productivity, it is also key to understand how an individual is feeling whilst completing this workload. Every individual is different, and some will need more prompting to open up on how they are coping than others. Some may have thrived on the challenges of working in lockdown; others may have struggled.
It may be necessary to ask the same question in different ways; a question like ‘how realistic do you think your deadlines have been this week’ could be rephrased as, ‘how have you felt about your workload recently?’ or simply, ‘how have you been feeling this week?’ You may need to meet more frequently with some staff members than others to keep a better handle on their workload and potential stress levels and look for patterns of behaviour or trigger points.
Whilst it is not a good idea to pry into an individual’s personal life, it is also important to get a handle on any external factors that could contribute to how someone approaches their workload and priorities. How comfortable is their home working environment? Have they got any challenges with childcare or vulnerable family members? Is something else weighing heavily on their mind? Clearly, as a manager your remit is professional, and it can be counter-productive to stray past these boundaries, but there may well be small adjustments you could make which add up to a big difference. If equipment is proving a challenge, could you arrange for their office computer, desk or chair to be couriered to their home address? Could you be more flexible on start and finish times if that helps with childcare? It is also sensible to know the limits of your own abilities and involve your HR department where appropriate, as there may well be universally accessible resources, such as support phone lines or access to healthcare, available to all.
Although there are clearly many steps you could be taking to mitigate burnout, some level of stress and anxiety is inevitable for most people. In this new environment of working from home, regular breaks are essential for refreshing and recharging – and ultimately warding off burnout. It is worth regularly underlining the benefits of taking a break from daily work duties. More than ever, it is essential that staff are discouraged from checking emails or fielding queries over text during their periods of leave, especially if this is due to stress or sickness.
This well known saying is true – you cannot help others if you are not helping yourself. As a manager, it is natural that you will end up absorbing some of the pressure your staff are feeling and adding it to your own, so knowing how to recognise and manage it is key. Much of the advice you will be giving to your staff is likely to apply to your own situation – are you voicing any concerns to your own superiors, having honest conversations and taking regular breaks? This is not only good for you personally, but also sets an example to your team members and encourages them to follow suit.
Ultimately, when it comes to managing burnout, saying that you care and are willing to listen is an important first step; demonstrating it through your actions is what will make the real difference all round. For more helpful tips on successfully leading a team, check out our comprehensive management advice section.