During the Covid-19 pandemic, employees faced unprecedented stress and demands on their time, including the risk of getting sick, the challenges of remote work and schooling, and isolation from friends and family. All organizations facing a crisis—from a pandemic to negative PR—can and should take steps to lessen the likelihood of employee burnout and its negative effects. Indeed, addressing employees’ needs is a key aspect of corporate crisis management. In an article in Business Horizons, George Washington University School of Business professors Kelly P. Gabriel and Herman Aguinis describe the risks of employee burnout and offer strategies for alleviating it.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is an occupational syndrome marked by overwhelming emotional exhaustion, negativity toward work, and lack of personal accomplishment, write Gabriel and Aguinis. According to the job demands-resources model of burnout, it tends to arise when employees face strong demands—such as job hazards, emotionally draining interactions, and a heavy workload—but lack the resources needed to deal with them, such as autonomy, support, and pay security. Notably, these conditions are often present during times of corporate crisis management. However, even highly engaged workers who have access to strong resources can suffer from burnout.
Employee burnout, which tends to develop gradually, has been linked to health problems ranging from coronary heart disease to depression. It can even be contagious, spreading from a suffering individual to their colleagues. Not surprisingly, during the Covid-19 pandemic, burnout was especially common among frontline employees, particularly health-care workers.
Corporate Crisis Management: Addressing Burnout
Based on a review of research on employee burnout, Gabriel and Aguinis identified five strategies that leaders can employ at the individual and organizational level to increase the availability of job resources and reduce the pressure of job demands.
- Provide Stress-Management Interventions
Typical stress-management interventions generally don’t address the root causes of burnout, such as an excessive workload. Thus, as one literature review shows, “Stress-management interventions can cause negative unintended consequences when implemented alone because employees feel they are being blamed for organization-level causes of their burnout and are in an untrusting environment,” write Gabriel and Aguinis.
Yet stress-management interventions are likely to be useful when accompanied by broader organizational changes. Cognitive-behavioral training and mindfulness meditation groups can be a useful component in corporate crisis management initiatives, according to Gabriel and Aguinis. Cognitive-behavioral training teaches employees to develop productive thoughts and coping skills to help them meet work demands. Mindfulness meditation groups aim to help employees adapt to stressful events and reduce tension.
- Allow Employees to Actively Craft Their Work
Employees often try handling stressful situations at work by taking steps to improve aspects of their job, such as prioritizing more interesting tasks or delegating excess work. Managers can facilitate this process. In particular, Gabriel and Aguinis advise managers to (1) let employees negotiate to take on challenging tasks that capitalize on their strengths, (2) increase task variety and the skills employees use, and (3) provide growth opportunities through professional development. All these shifts can be expected to improve motivation and reduce burnout.
- Cultivate and Encourage Social Support
Support from family, friends, coworkers, and managers—such as listening, giving advice, and providing material assistance—can help employees cope with stressors inside and outside work. As part of a corporate crisis management initiative, leaders should look for ways to cultivate and encourage social support in teams, write Gabriel and Aguinis. They offer several strategies for doing so, including fostering high-quality relationships with employees by taking their perspective and showing empathy, reducing stressful social interactions, and offering opportunities for employees to reflect on their work in groups.
- Engage Employees in Decision Making
Employees are likely to feel a greater sense of control when they are involved in making meaningful decisions in the workplace. Gabriel and Aguinis suggest a number of ways that managers can seek—and, critically, follow through on—employee input in decision making. For example, managers can reach out to employees to find out which job demands are causing strain and involve them in developing solutions. They can also look for ways to give employees a voice in organization-wide decisions.
- Implement High-Quality Performance Management
Annual performance reviews can be stressful and, especially during times of corporate crisis management, exacerbate burnout. Organizations are more likely to reduce burnout and prompt positive behavior through performance management, which Aguinis defines as “a continuous process of identifying, measuring, and developing the performance of individuals and teams, and aligning performance with the strategic goals of the organization.” Performance management involves providing “strengths-based feedback that is timely, frequent, specific, verifiable, consistent, and consequential,” write Gabriel and Aguinis.
In their paper, the authors offer several other tips that organizations can employ to help employees avoid and overcome burnout during the corporate crisis management process.
What strategies have you found useful in addressing burnout during corporate crisis management?