The Expert Guide Managing Burnout During COVID


As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the COVID-19 pandemic, it still weighs heavy on many employees’ consciousness. At WorkBright, we’ve been doing a lot to support each other, ensure employees are taking adequate time off, and trying to help our employees balance their workloads to reduce burnout and fatigue. Managing burnout during COVID isn’t easy.

We still have a long way to go to ensure that people around the globe are safe. As we pass the one-year mark for the COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to chat about COVID, burnout, and what organizations can do to help.

We sat down with Leah and Ines, two amazing female founders heading up a company called Skylyte that helps teams manage mental health and create resilient workforces. They both helped us understand burnout and how companies can help their teams cope with it.

What Is Burnout?

Before we can delve into COVID burnout, we need to take a step back to understand burnout.

When understanding burnout at work, consider the following ideas or components of burnout:

  • Feeling of depersonalization: You might feel disconnected from reality and what’s happening around you.
  • Emotional exhaustion: A chronic feeling of being overextended and depleted from work and personal demands.
  • Reduced personal efficacy: Employees might feel stuck or unable to find paths forward in their life and career.

During our chat with Skylyte, Ines shared that, “We look at physical symptoms, we look at attitudinal symptoms, and we also look at how you are in terms of workplace presence.”

All of these components of burnout show up in the workplace in different ways. You might have a reduction in motivation, make more workplace errors, have trouble prioritizing your tasks, or even deprioritize the things that give you energy.

Burnout Is A Spectrum

One thing that Ines underscored is that burnout is a spectrum. Burnout could lead to some larger issues like depression or even suicidal tendencies at the far end of the burnout spectrum. It’s important to catch burnout early and help your team navigate it before it gets that extreme.

One place that you can look to for more information about this is Freudenberger’s 12 stages of burnout. In this methodology, you can begin to understand how burnout can go from a compulsion to prove your worth to more extreme symptoms like burnout syndrome that needs full medical attention.

When communicating with your team, keep this spectrum top of mind. Understand the need to address these early symptoms before they turn into something drastically worse for your colleagues. 

Managing Burnout During COVID: How Is COVID Burnout Different?

Through our conversation with Leah and Ines, we began to understand the unique challenges employees face during COVID. These lead to a few specific differences between COVID burnout and the typical burnout your team might experience.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue creates a stronger sense of emotional exhaustion. There is so much happening in the world. Even if things aren’t actively affecting you or your family, you might sense a lot of grief over:

  • Stories on the news.
  • Things your coworkers tell you.
  • What you hear from extended family and friends.

If you care deeply about others, this pandemic will probably affect your mental and physical health.

Depending on the age of your employees, you might notice a lot of caregiving overwhelm. Leah shared that she was dealing with a lot of this due to being a part of the squeeze or sandwich generation. She has young children and older people in her family that need to be taken care of. If your employees are dealing with something similar, they might start to feel a bit of caregiving overwhelm. It’s important to keep your eye on employees dealing with caregiving from multiple angles.

Heightened Uncertainty

At the same time, there is so much uncertainty in the world right now. There are many things that your employees don’t have control over, and this is affecting their mental health at work.

“We know that uncertainty is very tiring for the brain. It uses a lot of blood flow. That contributes to the sense of limited agency or personal efficacy because people feel they don’t have enough information to be able to move forward or to know what the right decision is.”

It can be challenging to help your employees through this level of heightened uncertainty. You might be dealing with your own levels of uncertainty as a manager. The best thing you can do is empathize and be clear about what you can and cannot help with as a leader.


What Can Organizations Do To Help Their People With Managing Burnout During COVID?

Now that you understand what COVID burnout is let’s talk about a few things that organizations can do to help their people with COVID burnout.

Understand That COVID Burnout Affects People Differently

It’s important to note that all your employees are dealing with the pandemic in different ways.

Some of your employees might have families to take care of. Other employees are dealing with deep loneliness because they are isolated from their families.

Ines shared the need for team self-awareness during COVID, “Pushing for managers to better understand their own teams and the needs that they have on their teams is going to be critical.”

Managers and team members must be aware that needs vary across the organization. Some employees might need more care during this time because they are overwhelmed or flooded with things happening in their personal lives. As a manager, you have to prioritize who needs your help most during COVID.

Create Guardrails For Your Employees

During our interview with Ines and Leah, guardrails were mentioned as a great way to help your employees create boundaries. Here are a few examples of guardrails you and your organization and create:

  • Ensure that emails aren’t accessible after a certain hour.
  • Don’t take meetings before a certain time or on certain days.
  • Give employees computers and other technology so they can keep work off their personal devices.
  • Make taking a certain amount of time off mandatory for all employees.

Ines shared that some of your guardrails might seem extreme at first. Any guardrail you have in place can be reduced if you need them to be. Start with a guardrail that creates a true line in the sand. Once your employees feel better, and you can tell burnout has been reduced, you can ease these restrictions.

Give Your Employees A Diving Buddy To Help Diagnose Burnout

It’s easy for your employees to keep going without taking time to understand their burnout levels and how that might impact their work. If you can, connect your employees with someone else on your team to keep your employees grounded.

Ines acknowledged this tendency that employees have by sharing:

“It’s very hard to self-diagnose burnout. Sometimes the best way to do that is actually to have a diving buddy. They can do a check with you on a regular basis to make sure that you’re doing okay.”

Use A Distress Code Word

One of the great things about using communication tools during COVID (like Slack) is that you can communicate quickly. Ines suggests that employers create distress symbols and code words in Slack to communicate employee feelings with the team.

“We’ve had teams that have created symbols that they use in Slack or in other forms of communication that indicate that: Hey, I’m in a moment of distress and I need to either be given more time or I need to problem solve how to move things forward.”

Build out a symbol (like an emoji or gif) that employees can share when they feel distressed at your company. As a manager, this can also help you prioritize who needs your time and attention most that day.

Invest In Non-Transactional Time

The last thing you must-do if you want to help your employees deal with burnout is investing in non-transactional time. Work has become extremely transactional since the start of the pandemic. Some companies are remote, and this is causing a ton of issues. Many of those remote companies aren’t investing time and energy into those water cooler conversations anymore. Most meetings are strictly business, and this creates a lot of stress for your team.

“The smaller and more resource-constrained we are, the more we all tend to just be super transactional. When you see someone in person you ask how they are, but we don’t have these spaces online. Make sure you carve that time out as a team and try to do that individually. Understand that investing a little bit of time goes a long way to creating this sense of belonging which has gone away for many people in this shift to remote work.”


What Are Some Things We Can Do To Help With Burnout Post-COVID?

“All of this trauma, challenge, and stress isn’t going to evaporate overnight, that’s why people talk about it as a secondary pandemic of mental health.”

As the world opens back up, our employees will still be dealing with a lot of mental health and burnout issues. We’ve gone through a huge shift together, but getting us back on track is just the start of a long road to recovery. Here are a couple of things that employers can do to help their team post-COVID.

Think About Ways To Remove The Burden From Managers

Managers have been carrying a ton of weight since the pandemic began. Managers lead your team, but they are also dealing with the pressure of working during a pandemic.

“There’s an opportunity to spread that agency beyond the team manager to the entire team and to flatten those structures. And it will have a dual effect, it will make sure that people’s voices are heard a lot more and it will unburden a lot of managers who are frankly really struggling to keep head above water.”

When is the last time you’ve checked in on your team manager and asked how they’re doing? Be sure that you are keeping managers top of mind during and post-COVID.

Focus On Team Resiliency

“We cannot just rely on individuals to do the heavy lifting on their own mental health, we need to provide the structures that will allow them to blossom and to flourish.”

Resiliency and the ability to come together as a team to problem-solve will define truly fantastic teams post-COVID.

As a company, you should put mental health structures in place permanently so that your employees can build a team that functions well.

Rethink Employee Benefits

We realized that many of our current employee benefits don’t work for our team during the pandemic. As we emerge from this, we need to keep what worked and what didn’t top of mind. You shouldn’t go back to normal after this is over. Take some time to truly get to know what worked, what you can update, and what you can leave behind.

Conclusion: We Can Help Our People With Managing Burnout During COVID

Managing burnout during COVID doesn’t have to break your company’s bank account. As an organization, you have many opportunities to connect with your team and make their work experience smoother. We hope that today’s article gives you a clear understanding of what burnout is, what makes COVID burnout different, and how you can help your team with these issues.

Thanks To Our Experts: Leah And Ines From Skylyte

We wanted to give a special thanks to the two experts we interviewed to write this piece: Leah and Ines, the co-founders of Skylyte.

About Dr. Leah Weiss: Leah has 10+ years of experience partnering with companies and universities (Google, Stanford, the VA, HopeLab) on compassion and burnout. She is a founding faculty member of Stanford’s “Compassion Cultivation Program,” conceived by the Dalai Lama, and is a Lecturer at Stanford GSB. She is the author of the book, How We Work. She holds a Bachelors’s from Stanford and a Ph.D. from Boston College.

About Ines Gramegna: Ines spent close to 4 years in management consulting at McKinsey and 4 years in behavior change and adult education. She has experience working across 3 continents with top teams, large companies, and startups (as an advisor and operator.) She is a trained coach and holds degrees from LSE (BSc Economics/Politics) and Stanford (MBA/MA Ed).