The COVID-19 pandemic is having widespread effects on people's mental health, with stress on the rise. A survey has found that it's contributing to a spike in burnout, and costing employers.
About a quarter of workers are experiencing burnout as a result of the pandemic, while another 19% are feeling burnout for other reasons, the study by Eagle Hill Consulting found.
Burnout is officially recognized by the World Health Organization as an "occupational phenomenon." The WHO defines it as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
After more than a decade of work and research in this space, I'm not surprised to see the numbers ticking up during this pandemic. It's not just a result of the stress of this time, but also a natural response to changes that can take place when people not used to working from home suddenly only work from home.
Autonomy can make people happier, and for some there was a sense of novelty to working from home at first. But over time, for some it can get tougher to work without the beat of the team in an office. It also takes self-management skills to find ways to balance all your work tasks from home, and many people have never been trained in self-management skills.
Also, with our work and personal lives blending together across each day, there's no chance to leave work "at the office." I've experienced this myself. At first, I got some energy from finding new ways to connect with clients and employees from home while also managing my home life. But soon, I found myself working 12-hour days and much of the weekend.
Burnout costs employers a great deal. A study a few years ago, when burnout levels in the workforce were lower, estimated U.S. businesses were spending an additional $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare spending alone for the "psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees," the Harvard Business Review reported. "The true cost to business can be far greater, thanks to low productivity across organizations, high turnover, and the loss of the most capable talent."
Google even asked its employees to take off May 22 to address work-from-home related burnout. But many businesses can't afford to do something like this -- especially now, as the pandemic takes a massive toll on corporate profits and the workforce.
Fortunately, there are better ways. More than a decade of work and research in this space has shown me that businesses can help employees counteract burnout without giving up productivity.
Helping peers help each other through burnout
The most powerful way to avoid burnout is to help employees help each other. This is best done through peer coaching.
Research has found that when people are going through a stressful time, peers having similar experiences can be each other's best asset. They understand each other's challenges and can go through the process together, reducing each other's stress.
When peers have carefully designed conversations, they can relieve all the feelings associated with burnout -- and feel more positive, engaged, and optimistic. These conversations can be centered around a wide variety of subjects: processing mental and emotional stress, developing new ideas to help yourself and your business increase productivity; exploring the drivers that help you find purpose in your work, and much more.
But here's the key: peers should avoid trying to come up with answers to each other's problems. Instead, they should help each other find their own answers.
Working with businesses across the world to get peer coaching programs going, I've seen the results. A survey by my company, Imperative, found that people who engage in peer coaching are 65% more likely to feel fulfilled; 67% more likely to report being a top performer; 73% more likely to report feeling a sense of belonging; and 50% more likely to expect to stay in their job for more than 5 years.
The American Medical Association reported that peer coaching is an effective tool in combating physician burnout. And HBR reported that peer coaching helps reduce the loneliness people can feel in their work, a common cause of burnout.
[Keep reading: How to Manage Teams When Working Remotely]
Zoom happy hours may have been fun for a few weeks, but that wore off. And workers need a long-term solution -- which is why peer coaching should become a regular, weekly occurrence, a standard part of company culture. After all, meetings and real connections with colleagues are not the same.
All signs point to burnout becoming an even bigger problem than it already is. The loss of life and the economic effects of COVID-19 aren't going to disappear anytime soon. Stress, anxiety, and loneliness are likely to rise. Before even more workers find themselves struggling with this, businesses would do well to empower their staff with the tools and resources to help each other build resilience -- by being there for each other in the most compassionate, promising way possible.