Some say it’s the winter blues. Others may call it zoom fatigue. Whatever you coin it, employees are experiencing feelings of malaise and exhaustion at the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Has a year of working from home led to employee burnout?
Sadia Jahanzeb, Brock Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources, defines burnout as a combination of alienation, exhaustion and lack of personal effectiveness — three areas in which the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on people’s well-being.
She says guidelines and rules around physical distancing have led to feelings of isolation and lack of a sense of belonging. The added challenge of working from home while also caring for family members or helping children with online schooling has left employees feeling stretched too thin and questioning whether or not they are doing their job well enough.
“The lines between work and home have become blurred,” says Jahanzeb. “It has created a lack of structure around working and feelings around loss of control, which can lead to either working too much or being not motivated to work enough.”
Kathryn Walker, Manager of Health Management and Wellness, says burnout is a normal reaction to sustained stress in an unprecedented and unpredictable situation like a global health crisis.
“We all experience worry, fear, anxiety and exhaustion, and it’s normal to fluctuate and experience these symptoms for periods of time,” she says. “But if these emotions start to impair our ability to do regular activities or they’re negatively impacting our work and family life, it becomes a concern. It’s important to address the situation, take time for oneself and access resources and support. There’s a lot of free reputable resources out there right now.”
Walker suggests one way employees can add structure to their work-life balance, and more clearly define the line between work and personal life, is to develop a morning and evening routine.
“It will signal the start and end of each workday and can help distinguish when it’s time to transition to personal time,” she says.
The nature of online meetings has also led to feelings of angst among employees. Psychology Professor Cathy Mondloch says the absence of people’s bodies in online meetings and other virtual social interactions makes it more difficult for people to interpret each other’s feelings, emotions and underlying intentions.
“Research has shown we’re not very good at reading emotions from faces,” she says. “During on-screen interactions, people only show their heads. Participants aren’t seeing body cues, so they might misread emotions or perceive the other person as being less emotional.”
Mondloch also says people aren’t able to focus their attention in online meetings the same way as in-person meetings. When someone is speaking in a physical room, attendees often focus their attention to the person speaking, who is smiling and engaging with the audience. Everyone else is listening with neutral expressions on their faces. In online meetings, however, attendees are equally spread out across the screen, most listening with blank faces. Alternatively, cameras are off, making is difficult to read the room.
“So, what we end up seeing is a lot of people who look bored,” Mondloch says. “We interpret this as a lack of energy in the room and most people appearing disinterested.”
Equally important in online meetings is eye gaze, she says, which is a cue that indicates a person’s interest.
“We’re very sensitive to small shifts in eye gaze and we perceive indirect gaze in social interactions as a lack of interest or the person trying to disengage,” Mondloch says.
It’s nearly impossible to make eye contact in online meetings. People often look at the image of their colleagues on the screen instead of directly at the camera. To the colleagues, it looks like the eye gaze is slightly down or to the side, which can be unconsciously interpreted as lack of interest.
Of course, these minor misinterpretations in emotion and interest are a small part of an employee’s overall experience working from home during a pandemic.
Andrew Gaudes, Dean of the Goodman School of Business, says it’s not the remote work itself that has caused feelings of burnout, it’s the necessity to work from home.
“High tech needs high touch,” Gaudes says. “If you work in a remote way, you need other places to replenish or refuel your sense of connectedness or interaction with people. Physical distancing, however, does not allow us to come together with family, friends and colleagues. If remote work is part of a more complete diet of work and life experiences, it won’t contribute to burnout. Remote work can be done in a very healthy, productive and satisfying way. The problem is, we’re living a remote life right now.”
Gaudes recommends employees focus on nurturing seven areas of life to help with their mental health: Sleep, playtime, downtime, physical activity, focus time, connection time and time spent introspectively.
“Step away from the machine, take breaks, don’t structure meetings back-to-back, and make time to talk to people outside of work,” he says. “Focus less on the things out of your control and instead focus on the things you can control.”
Walker suggests employees speak with their supervisor about their situation, allowing them to offer support in various ways. She also encourages employees to speak openly with people in their inner circle, such as a significant other, parent, sibling, friend or co-worker.
“Sometimes it just takes hearing someone else is feeling the same way for you to feel a little less lonely. It makes you feel like you’re part of an army instead of a lone soldier,” Walker says.
The University’s Health Management team is available to help and offer Brock employees resources and support. Available assistance includes:
- Several mental health resources for faculty and staff, including the Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP), which has been temporarily made available to all current Brock employees as part of the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Employee wellness resources on the Human Resources SharePoint site.
- The Health and Safety Wellness Toolbox contains an abundance of information related to health and safety wellness related to COVID-19.
- The Health Management team has offered several work-life balancing strategies to use when working from home.
- Mental health training is available for managers and employees.
- Brock’s EFAP provider Morneau Shepell has a COVID-19 toolkit and a comprehensive tip sheet that outlines how to navigate remote working.
- Brock’s long-term disability provider OTIP also has several online resources.