Respond to Pandemic Fatigue by Fixing the Problems You’ve Been Ignoring

The International Classification of Diseases, now on its 10th revision, includes nine specific conditions related to burnout, which itself is defined as “a state of vital exhaustion”. One of those classifications is “a lack of relaxation and leisure”. When people tell me that they don’t have time for leisure, I often point out that a lack of leisure time is not an inconvenience—it’s an internationally recognized disease. Most people confess that they never thought about a lack of leisure activity in such terms.

Because we tend not to see relaxation and leisure as a critical part of a healthy life, we dedicate so much time and energy to work that it not only becomes difficult to find the time for leisure, it also causes us to enjoy leisure time and activities less because we feel guilty about not working. Now that’s really insane when you stop to think about it.

One reason we face this problem is that, in a knowledge work economy, most of us perpetually have more work than we could possibly complete. There is never a moment when our To Do List is completely (or even remotely) finished, and we struggle to set feasible daily agendas for ourselves.

Before COVID-19 transformed our work lives, many of us were already stretched thin. A February 2020 survey revealed that about 61% of US workers considered themselves to be burned out, the majority of whom cited an unmanageable workload. The same survey conducted in May of 2020 saw that rate jump to 73% of workers still employed, with the top reason being a lack of separation between work and the rest of life. For many, these issues are compounded during the pandemic by the sense that being employed is good fortune and that working harder is essential.

Considering that excessive workload was a problem before the pandemic, and that the majority of employees already felt overwhelmed with work, a rational person might ask: why are we working so much? Why can’t we solve the problem of having too much by reducing the amount of work we have to do? The answer may not be what you’d think: habit.

In general, organizations tend to be very inefficient when it comes to change. Rather than stopping nonessential activity to pour energy and attention into the most important work, organizations tend to layer on. That layering often sneaks up, because people muscle through inefficiency. The problem with muscling through is that it might work for awhile, but it is not sustainable. When additional stressors arise, a bad situation gets worse. Stress becomes burnout.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions to this point. There are numerous front line workers who do not have the option of stopping some activities and this point should not diminish the importance of their contributions and the benefits they are offering society by ramping up their work right now. However, even people on the front lines cannot sustain break-neck workloads forever. In order to be effective, all of us must take the time to rest, recover, and “sharpen the saw”.

While numerous pundits have offered us advice about dealing with pandemic fatigue, addressing burnout, and generally helping our employees navigate the stress and uncertainty of the moment, I’m offering a three-part call to action for leaders.

  1. Be relentless about stopping nonessential work. Do not indulge your every curiosity by sending employees to research every idea you may have. Do not set an expectation that “old work” continues while “new work” begins without establishing a clear plan for balance between the two. Do communicate a clear vision and ensure that your team is bought in. Do establish clear processes for collaboration and help people identify work that doesn’t need to be done. If you run a professional services firm, do set reasonable boundaries and expectations with your clients and set a high barrier to adjust scopes of work so that you are forced to reasonably align your staffing with deliverables.

  2. Stop making screen time the solution to everything. Connecting can be more meaningful and less stressful when it\’s done by phone. Keep in mind that stress and burnout manifest as exhaustion. Encourage people to go for walks, spend time outside, and get more rest. You may have tried to help people connect by providing more technology, but that may not be the right investment. Your people may be spending much more time trying to get work done than they need to. Take the time to understand what they really need, and help get them appropriate resources—especially ones that don’t require Zoom.

  3. Fix your long-term problems. Even if you’re a great leader, you have room to improve. Bear in mind that you are almost definitely meeting too much, and your meetings are probably highly inefficient. You are probably wasting your own employees’ time. Spend less time trying to solve the new problems presented by the pandemic and more time solving the pre-existing problems that you failed to root out before. Be honest with yourself about whether you are using your role as a leader to organize your team for success or are instead ignoring problems that are inconvenient for you to address.

If all of this feels rather negative, I understand. It’s hard to acknowledge that the things we let slip before have transmogrified into a team that is simultaneously working harder than ever and yet also feeling less productive, collaborative, effective, or generally happy than ever. But it doesn’t have to be that way—and you should take care to avoid continuing to cover for these issues with the all too comfortable solution of layering new strategies atop old ones.