4 Ways Managers Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout

4 Ways Managers Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout

It’s no small feat to balance these complexities, which is why at Upwork, we’ve designed a tapestry of pandemic-prompted strategies to enable managers to support themselves and their employees.

When we closed our offices in March, we knew it would be critical to normalize mental health maintenance as a self-care practice and expectation. From hosting company-wide conversations about mental health to sharing our benefits and resources in our weekly coronavirus update emails, the measures we’ve implemented have resonated with our employees—in our first coronavirus survey in May, 95% of them agreed that we are staying connected as a team.

While this top-down approach is necessary, it alone is not sufficient for protecting employees’ mental health during this crisis. This is where managers come in, as the people closest to every individual team member. Empathy is a core tenet of successful managers, who have a heightened responsibility right now to care for their people and continue moving work forward.

Here are four actions managers can take to put employees’ mental health first and help drive results.

1. Talk explicitly about mental wellbeing

Integrating mental wellbeing into team interactions creates an opening for more grounded, objective and mutual understanding of what employees need to be their best. Our managers have aligned on three core strategies:

  • Incorporating numerically-based emotional check-ins into employee one-on-ones (for example, “How are you feeling on a scale of 1-10?”)
  • Asking employees explicitly what they need and setting the expectation that the manager’s role is to protect and support them
  • Encouraging employees to stay active in our sub-communities, including our employee resource groups and clubs

2. Take a team day off

While our employees’ sense of purpose is at an all-time high, there are drawbacks to burning the candle at both ends. Employees need to take time off to care for themselves so they can, in turn, give their best to their teams and customers—especially as new mental health concerns arise and preexisting conditions are exacerbated in this time of uncertainty and isolation.

To get in front of burnout, we instituted a company-wide “Recharge Day” in March during which all team members were invited to unplug, recuperate and reset. Knowing that the organization is offline together can relieve employees' concerns about abandoning their coworkers or taking off at the “right” time. If it’s not feasible to have the whole team or organization offline concurrently, managers can stagger days off or give a short timeframe for taking time off.

Importantly, our managers modeled their own time off by proactively communicating it, truly taking the day by not answering emails and talking about how they spent their day off with teams when they returned. Seeing managers take time off makes it safer for employees to do the same.

3. Restructure time to help employees prioritize

Before the coronavirus struck, our company practiced Work Online Wednesdays as a weekly dedicated day to work from home. Needless to say, that became moot once we closed our offices, so we’re piloting a new calendar cadence: Customer Wednesdays.

On Customer Wednesdays, internal meetings are banned and the only facetime meetings permitted for most employees are calls with customers and external partners. This time restructuring has nudged managers to rethink the necessity (“Do we really need this meeting?”) and design (“Can this meeting be an email?”) of all our touchpoints, like team meetings and standing one-on-ones.

In turn, employees and managers have regained flexibility to take care of individual needs with minimal disruption, carved out more heads-down time for deep thinking and are able to recover from the 24/7 impression management that contributes to Zoom fatigue.

4. Keep track of best practices for the “next normal”

Adjusting to a new way of work, life and the unavoidable integration of the two in the face of a pandemic has forced us to challenge assumptions about business necessities versus nice-to-haves and get ruthless about time and prioritization.

The biggest oversight managers can make right now is to forget learnings, undervalue wins, and overlook mistakes. Keep a journal of “wins,” “whoops,” and “what to do’s” at the individual, team and company levels. Set a reminder to revisit the list monthly to tweak and iterate on business practices.

Simply put, there’s no playbook for leading during this time. We’re all learning—and should be writing the playbook—as we go. Ultimately, the processes and practices that managers set in place now are laying the foundation for what the next era of work will look like.

To that end, every manager can take action to balance the tension between driving results in a shaken economy and cultivating care for employee wellbeing. Of course, managers must care for themselves before they can effectively care for their teams. We’ve partnered with external experts to provide coaching; especially for our leaders who are driving our coronavirus response. These sessions strengthen community amongst managers by bringing them together to share concerns, hopes and requests for support.

When the only real clarity we have is that the future is uncertain, managers have the opportunity to shape a future of work that recognizes people and their mental health as both critical to the bottom line and a basic expectation of any responsible employer.

Leaders who are fortunate enough to still have jobs in the midst of the coronavirus crisis must rise to the challenge of leading through a pandemic. Middle managers in particular are charged with both maintaining business continuity and buffering against the employee mental health crisis: Anxiety and depression are rising. Nobody’s sleeping. And yet, almost 60% of employees have never spoken about mental health at work.


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Author Spotlight

4 Ways Managers Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout
Erin L. Thomas, PhD
VP, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging

Erin L. Thomas, PhD, is Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Upwork. She brings a distinctive mix of research and practitioner expertise to this role, which includes leading diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIBs) strategy, implementation, and coaching.

4 Ways Managers Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout
VP, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging

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