How can leaders tackle increasing burnout on remote teams?

Work-life integration the name of the game moving forward

How can leaders tackle increasing burnout on remote teams?

There’s no escaping the fact that 2021 continues to be a challenging year. Organizations across Canada are coping with longer than anticipated pandemic challenges, and employees have been asked to adjust how and where they work as remote teams or hybrid work models become the rule rather than the exception.

Although employees have more than stepped up under these challenging conditions, recent data from the O.C. Tanner Institute1 indicates employee burnout is on the rise — surveys indicate 52% of Canadians reported the pandemic has made them feel physically or emotionally exhausted, and at any given time on average up to 50% of employees are suffering moderate to severe levels of burnout — and employers need to figure out how to address this secondary pandemic going forward.

“Employees are increasingly feeling disconnected from purpose, accomplishment and one another,” says Gary Beckstrand, Vice President at O.C. Tanner, who recently moderated a series of roundtables with HRD Canada that brought leaders together to discuss strategies and realistic steps for building connection, deepening engagement and safeguarding against burnout.

Part of the conversation centred around how robust communication from leadership will remain critical going forward — but how leaders deliver it and the cadence of it will matter most, says Susan McGann, Senior Director, Enterprise Learning at ADP Canada. She notes that while things might not be as crazy for most employers as it was in the beginning, it’s not over — the runway is still lengthy ahead of us.”

To temper the onslaught of communication, ADP created a dedicated website with up-to-date information that employees can visit rather than be bombarded by emails so “they aren't overwhelmed by the pace of change.”

“We want to make communication not only a push, but a pull,” McGann says, adding the top priority with any reach out is to reinforce the fact that people are their greatest resource.

Communication is also about building connection by thinking about what employees need right now and how you can support them, says Maria Fraga, Head of Global Benefits & Wellness at Manulife. They’re “doubled down” on mental wellbeing by offering virtual mental health options and bringing in motivational speakers to discuss tools and strategies on how to stay balanced.

Manulife also enacted a policy to help employees manage time better as it’s "critical that employees regularly disconnect from work to have time for all aspects of their life.” The guidelines help employees set boundaries on how they work by ensuring everyone takes regular breaks, limiting off-hours meetings and balancing screen time including emails and personal time, for example.

“It’s important to normalize that everyone has a different and unique reaction — it’s human, it’s normal and they’re not alone,” Fraga says. “We’re all going through this process together.”

Transparency from leadership is another key factor in building connection. Assad Mallick, now VP, Global Total Rewards at LifeWorks, was VP and Head of Total Rewards at Cineplex at the time of the roundtable, and with the hit Cineplex took over the course of the pandemic, he knows how difficult it can be to communicate things like salary reductions or lay offs. But they treated employees like adults, giving them all the information they possibly could even if they didn’t have all the answers and increasing time allotted to employees asking questions, rather than the company “pushing information down.”

“This is one of the first times in history where people and organizations are being a lot more vulnerable,” says Mallick. “We’re asking leaders to do a lot more because the nature of leadership is very different managing a virtual team. We’re making sure we equip managers with the right tools and support, and encouraging them to check in with their teams more often in formal and informal settings.”

Appreciation, big and small, is a great way to mitigate burnout and build connection, and to that end Cineplex partnered with O.C. Tanner for Employee Appreciation Day, and shared Goodlife’s Virtual Wellness Day. The variety of sessions, which included topics like diet and nutrition and good sleeping habits, was done through Cineplex’s A-List Appreciate Awesome recognition tool. In a similar spirit, ADP often brings people together for friendly competitions that aren't work related, like bakeoffs, or sends everyone virtual Uber Eats vouchers for Taco Tuesday.

“If we were still in the office, that’s what we’d be doing,” McGann says. "That’s our secret sauce.”

Shereen Batarseh, Director, People Services Technology, Strategy & Operations at Colliers International, says they’ve “changed the conversation to no longer be about work-life balance, but work-life integration,” and incorporated flexibility around when and how work is done. She says it’s important employees feel free to talk to their manager about what works best for them, and that the message to the workforce is always one of support.

Leaders are being called on to increase their emotional intelligence and take on more of a coaching or mentoring role, Beckstrand says, and many companies are providing resources to help leaders deal with the changing environment, including how to identify if one of their team members is struggling and how best to reach out to them and get them the help they need.

“Be intentional, find opportunities to connect and focus on work-life integration moving forward,” he says, noting that ultimately transparency and authenticity will stoke engagement and build the connections needed to create the Holy Grail: a strong company culture.

Faga says Manulife never could have pivoted to remote work and driven the innovation they’ve seen over the last year and a half without already having a strong culture in place, “and it all goes back to the engagement we’ve had with our employees,” she says.

While there are universal strategies that have proven effective, Mallick notes “there’s no silver bullet — every organization has a different culture.”

“You need to understand what your organization is like, the DNA of the organization, and manage it that way.”

Tune in to the roundtables, Employee communications in the age of COVID and hybrid workplaces and What can leaders do to protect mass worker burnout?, to hear the entirety of the insightful conversation.

1 O.C. Tanner Institute Omnibus, V2.4 04/21/21

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