Dousing the flames of fatigue

If you are consistently tired before the day starts, you may be burnt out. By Kate Kearins.

Chances are, you’ll have seen the spate of recent headlines decrying the ever-growing and increasingly alarming rates of workers who are burnt out.

Unless, of course, you’re one of those burnt-out workers – in which case, you’ll probably be buried under winter-weight covers, desperately trying to find and restore your energy levels so you can face the daily grind.

In the past, many managers and employees could predict with relative accuracy the productivity cycles of our respective workplaces. Perhaps a slightly slower start in January, work ramping up, time for a mid-year break or two for some, and for many a big rush up to Christmas to ‘get everything done’.

Today (and for the foreseeable), our workplaces, schedules, outputs and relationships have changed from routine and reliable, happening in mainly just one place, to fluctuating, flexible and – let’s face it – fatiguing.

So how do we, as leaders of organisations tasked with supporting our colleagues, tackle the monumental challenge that is fatigue management?

Before the pandemic, ensuring the health and safety of staff and colleagues seemed relatively straightforward (though by no means easy).

HR policies and procedures, replete with terms like “identification of workplace hazards” and “risk ratings”, reflect the way many organisations understand their responsibilities for keeping employees safe at work.

A 2021 version of those same documents would – and perhaps should – read differently.

As the findings of my AUT colleague, Professor Jarrod Haar, show, Kiwi employees are at increasing risk of becoming “burnt-out” – an occupational phenomenon officially recognised in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

Jarrod’s research shows that managers, employees under 30, essential workers and Māori are particularly prone to being burnt out. That’s particularly worrying because employees who are burnt out are far more likely to experience serious mental health issues.

It’s easy (and apt) to blame Covid and all its disruptions and insecurities. But there are other elements, too. For example, the downside of not commuting to work is the potential for isolation as we WFH.

Anecdotally, it seems that the more people try to combine working from different places and too many other bits of their lives at the same time, the more they feel fatigued.

Their commute might have disappeared, but for many, it has been replaced with a gaping hole formerly filled by human interactions – collegial, social, intellectual.

I experienced this firsthand recently when an extremely confronting work-related email landed in my inbox. The fact that I was at work, and able to confide in a colleague about its unpleasant content helped me put things into perspective.

Suddenly I was not alone, floundering or too tired to deal with it.

Would I have phoned or Zoomed the same colleague about the matter? Probably not.

Would I have had the support I needed that same day, and ahead of other important meetings? Almost certainly not.

Interpersonal support and the need for human connection are part of our DNA.

The best antidote to fatigue then, could be “inclusion”.

And that’s where a review of our respective HR policies and practices come in.

My colleague Jarrod’s work shows that staff from firms with a strong culture around employee well-being were 82.7 percent less likely to be burnt out.

As managers, our individual and organisational commitment to employees includes acknowledging that “fatigue” today comes in a whole new range of ways – not just “Zoom fatigue” and “WFH isolation fatigue” but also “never turning off my device fatigue”, “my bedroom is my office fatigue” and “I’m trying to be a full-time employee, parent and caregiver fatigue”.

Here in New Zealand, we contend with another source of fatigue – the lingering dread that comes with knowing our “Covid-free in the community” status could change at any moment.

Fragility and fatigue go hand-in-hand.

We now know these situations are as hazardous to employees’ health, safety and wellbeing as any broken step, chemical spill, or shonky scaffolding.

Jarrod Haar says there are four key signs to watch for: emotional exhaustion, feelings of indifference to work, trouble staying focused and a lack of emotional control.

While most employees feel tired or “burned out” at times, only those who scored highly across all four factors are considered burnt out. A good proxy is: if you are consistently tired before the day starts, you may be burnt-out.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland
University of Technology.

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