Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Burnout soars among workers during pandemic; how to tackle it

The number of Kiwi workers at high risk of burnout has risen from one in 10 at the start of the Covid outbreak to one in three.

That’s according to AUT’s rolling “[email protected]” study of around 1000 managers and employees at various points between February 2020 and November this year.

“The analysis paints a woeful – and worsening – picture of the health of the NZ workforce,” according to AUT Business School Professor Jarrod Haar, who is overseeing the research.

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“Clearly, something has changed – and something needs to be done,” Haar says.

“We’ve been working under these weird conditions now for close to two years. And Auckland, in particular, has been locked down for more than 100 days.”

Haar says around two-thirds of respondents to the demographically-weighted survey are working from home, at least some of the time, during the pandemic.

“Many of those face the juggle of trying to be caregiver, teacher, and employee at the same time,” he says.

Some work-from-homers face the phenomenon of the “endless day” as they field queries from both early-rising colleagues and those who start later and are still going in the evening.

There’s also the pre-pandemic factor of smart devices that “tether people to the office” regardless of their location, which has continued to be a factor.

To be classed as at high risk of burnout, a respondent had to show score highly across four criteria: (Haar says one anyone criteria by itself, such as physical exhaustion, can’t be relied on as an indicator).

1. Exhaustion: Both physically and mentally.

2. Mental distance:: You no longer consider what you do has any value or worth.

3. Emotional impairment: Being unable to control your emotions, such as showing up to work and crying.

4 Cognitive impairment: Being distracted and forgetful at work.

Haar says if you do suffer full-on burnout, it can take two or three months of time off work to recover.

“No one has three months worth of leave saved up, or, you know, and not many have enough money to survive three months without work, so prevention is way more beneficial.”

The academic says if you feel you’re at risk of burnout, it’s good to take at least four weeks off work, utilising some of your sick leave if possible.

He suggests those at risk should take a break after completing a major project.

And he says after nearly two years of pandemic pressures, everyone should try to take a decent break over the upcoming holiday season.

Some organisations like AUT (three days) and Auckland University (five days) have given staff bonus wellbeing leave over Christmas and the New Year, while some in the private sector – like Vista Group with its new Friday afternoons off policy – are acknowledging employees need extra time to unwind after a tough 24 months.

Haar says it’s crucial to really take time out when you’ve got leave, or just when you finish up for the day.

Last month, Portugal passed new labour laws, including a measure that made it illegal for your boss to phone or email you out-of-hours.

In New Zealand, “I don’t think we need another piece of legislation,” Haar says.

Some private sector firms, like 2degrees, have already introduced an out-of-hours switch-off.

Haar says such moves increase productivity overall, serve as a competitive advantage in a tight labour market – and help mitigate the associated “Great Resignation” trend.

Beneath the November 2021 [email protected] survey’s headline figure of 35 per cent of NZ’s workforce being at high risk of burnout, Haar identified several groups suffering more than most.

While there were no major differences between age groups, or those working in the public versus private sector, a number of areas stood out.

• Those who feel the most tied (or “tethered”) to their office (via smart devices) had a 7x higher burnt-out risk.
• Māori employees had a 6x higher risk.
• Workers with high work demands (e.g., too much work to do) -6x higher.
• Workers in highly bureaucratic firms – 4x higher.
• Those with dependents2.6x higher.
• Managers – 2.4x higher.
• Males – 2.3x higher.
• Those working-from-home – 2x higher.

Additional stress on managers during the pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon, Haar says.

“In the past two years, managers have been the glue holding workplaces and workforces together. People in these positions have likely been under tremendous pressure and serious damage is being done. They are more likely to have high work demands and use smart devices after-hours. We’re seeing the impact of that continued strain.”

Haar says he captured two cohorts of Māori respondents, professionals and blue-collar, who had both suffered much higher than average risk of burnout, but for different reasons.

“Māori were well represented in management positions, but much were more likely to be male and have dependents, and they were slightly more likely to report higher work demands and face higher levels of bureaucracy in their workplace – a perfect storm of burnout,” he says.

“There were also low-paid, high job insecurity Māori. Your job might be constantly under threat because you’re in hospitality, or working in a factory and it’s not clear if parts are coming in from overseas. You don’t know if you’ll have work next month and mentally you get into a fight or flight state.”

Haar adds: “Workers are genuinely tired. Organisations may want to go the extra distance and see if they can do a bit more to acknowledge their employees’ dedication and fatigue. Here at AUT, for example, we are closing three days earlier than planned to give workers a head-start on their rest and recovery. That will go a long way to ensuring people feel ready and able to return in 2022.”

After the grind of the 100-day lockdown, Aucklanders, in particular, should use the lifting of restrictions as an opportunity to recast their thinking.

“The move to the red light, borders opening, the Christmas holidays – those are three big wins. Maybe some travel, too – Omicron notwithstanding,” Haar says.

“There probably is some decent light at the end of the tunnel and we should be embracing that, psychologically, and thinking ‘I’m gonna get out there and relax and make the most of it’. People will benefit a lot from that kind of mindset as well.”

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or text 234 (available 24/7)
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (12pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 or text 4202 (available 24/7)
Anxiety helpline: 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY) (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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