It's not a Productivity Contest - It's a burnout

When the lockdown started, majority of us likely thought that it will only last for a month or so and so with that message in our heads we braced for a short term change in the way we work.

Many businesses managed to move with ease from casual Working from home policies to this new, interim remote ways of working while others struggled with various degrees.

I have to say that I have never seen people on my team and across my business organisation work harder over the past 3 months. Sure, we missed hugs and brainstorms and coffee breaks together but overall we all threw ourselves in work to help the business weather the unusual commercial challenges that came with COVID-19. As we were working hard from home surrounded by family and lock down challenges we continued to use the same tools, processes and habits built over years of working in an office environment.

At the same time I have never seen so many well-meaning ‘preachers’, coaches, ‘cheerleaders’, experts that went all out to keep the positive mindset of humanity alive with the most generic and wide brushstrokes possible. The way the media was talking about the lock down was like we were on holiday, having the time of our lives! And as there was not real context grounding their well meaning advise - the advise was useless.

We were encouraged to find a new hobby, do something new, spend time with family, work out more, meditate more, cook more, Zoom more, smile more, play more, read more, buy more...more, more, more

But at what cost?

Enter Burnout

Watching my team work their socks off over the past 3 months I can confidently say that COVID-19 Lockdown was not a holiday and I for one find it extremely annoying that so often is portrayed to be one! I watched my team work the longest hours they have ever worked, I saw them struggle to adapt, I saw them being spread super thin between work, Zoom, work, Zoom, family, Zoom, kids, Zoom, homeschooling, Zoom and it goes on like that. The truth is I watched them and myself slowly burning out!

Burnout is a complex and constantly evolving phenomenon but certainly not new. Studies date back to the 1970s, but it was only in May 2019 that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised burnout as an “occupational phenomenon or syndrome.” It has three elements: feelings of exhaustion, mental detachment from one’s job and poorer performance at work.


'Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job;

- reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life. (WHO ICD-11)'


There was a time (pre Covid-19) when burnout was the ‘disease' of overachievers. A state of 'vital exhaustion' associated with Type A behaviour pattern, 'characterised by unbridled ambition, a need for high achievement, impatience, competitiveness, and a sense of urgency.’ (ICD-10 Code) .

But in these new times of lockdown a new conflict appeared that turned our life upside down because we were not prepared, equipped or knowledgeable to self help in this new reality.

The clash of our established social role with brand new life-management difficulties. This made us all circumstantial 'overachievers'

Circumstantial Overachievers

We stopped commuting and we stopped going out - these are 2 seemingly innocent things that affected how we spend our time at home, which was now our place of work as well. We got so excited but this unusual change in circumstances that we quite willingly overcompensated for our fear of others negative perception of our quality of work by doing longer hours crammed with unprecedented mix of activities across family, work and personal time. We wanted to prove we can do it all!

The competition of doing more, doing better and adding even more to our plate accelerated like I have never seen before (and I went to a pretty mean competitive high school and even more competitive University).

I saw people having to work while parenting, cooking 3 meals a day for the family, preparing snacks, dealing with tantrums, cleaning, laundry, walks, home schooling, keeping safe, entertaining the kids, organising the work day in shifts so that meetings can take place, finding quiet place to work... the list is endless! Those with kids have countless stories to tell and those without ...well they also have their own challenges and it is equally likely to burn out from overworking, to spiral into depression from just being at home alone.

Burn out knows no discrimination so don't think just because or are young and healthy you will be ok. Or just because you are experienced and seasoned you can take it. This lock down is not a productivity competition and we should have never made it so! These are unusual and certainly unplanned times and as such can not be measured with the usual measures.

Burn out is a slippery thing - it is chronic, it is one small dose at a time but consistently day in-day out building up and taking over. In the ICD-11, the condition is described as “not a single event but a process in which everyday stresses and anxieties gradually undermine one’s mental and physical health”. At the extreme end there are people who entirely shut down and are hospitalised; at the other end it could be someone showing signs of anxiety, low mood and feeling detached from day-to-day life.

And so, in this hyper active lock down reality where there is constant push to do more, learn more, be more what we actually need to leant is balance!

To get close to balance we need to start with the basic - be kind to ourselves and not treat life like a hamster wheel.

The 3 Signs of Burnout

There are 3 key signs to burnout I watch out for in myself and in my team:

  • Exhaustion — feeling depleted, having lowered concentration, being especially forgetful. You feel like you have no energy to do anything. You might experience disturbed sleep, and some flu-like symptoms.

  • Alienation — wanting to avoid social situations (even social ZOOM), feeling pessimistic, feeling cynical. You feel irritated and frustrated, often becoming self-critical. You feel detached from things you used to love.

  • Reduced performance — missing deadlines, feeling listless, being less engaged

In short: we’re being exhausted in a whole new way as burnout morphs during this pandemic, persisting even in the most unusual times.

The Cost of Burnout

There is a personal cost and there is business/organisational costs to burnout.


  • individual health and well-being

  • adds financial and family strain


  • Estimates for the health care costs of job-related burnout are est. to be $190 billion.

  • Burnt-out employees are:

  • Over 60% more likely to take a sick day

  • 2 1/2 times more likely to be seeking a new job

  • Have much lower confidence in their performance and are less likely to discuss performance with their manager

(Source: Impact of Burnout on Employee Attendance & Performance)

  • 95% of human resource leaders admit employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention (Kronos)

  • 75% of employers ranked stress as their top health and productivity concern (Willis Towers Watson)

  • Job burnout accounts for over $125 billion in health-care spending each year and is a contributing factor to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol, and even death for those under age 45. (HBR/PLoS One)

The Burnout toolkit

Just because you don't suffer from burn out does not mean you should not be dedicated to making sure those that do get help and those that don't never get there.

As a Leader the wellbeing of your team is your responsibility and you should not take that challenge lightly. This is not a 'millennial problem' and chances are it will not go away.

Here are some tips and tools you can use in your day-to-day work regardless if your location and environment:

Try these ...

  • Silence the media and do what works for you - there is so much negativity and conflicting information on the news and social media. if it does not work for you then don’t add it to your already busy days. take a break and win some headspace.

  • Take care of your workforce and your team - now it's not the time to burn out!

  • Communicate - the most important thing is to communicate to your team that they don't need to be measured with the same old measures. It is new reality, we will use new ways to measure success. Use a diverse communication tools - audio, video, written word

  • It’s OK if things take a little bit longer - remember different ways of working require different measures. Be sure to talk about this openly and discuss new ways of working that bring back motivation and pride. Remember you don’t index on time spent you index on output!

  • Recognise burn out and have a process to help

  • Share experiences so that people don't feel alone

  • Provide clear POC - this could be 'empathy buddy calls' or someone that your team members can trust and go to with anonymity. It is not easy to confess to feeling underproductive when you have always overachieved.

  • Recognise more than usual - in these exceptional times we need to be able to zoom in more on the positives than usual. Recognise effort, achievement even the fact that despite all the daily challenges your team turns up every day and delivers quality. Don't call out one name - no one achieves something on their own - call out teams, groups or all call out all names in the teams. If you are calling out someone and separating their performance from the others, it better be exceptional and you better be sure that majority of your team will be happy to see you and hear you do so. Keep your ear to the ground even more.

  • Wellbeing set up - what are you doing to provide information, sources, tools - how do you empower your team to self help

  • Encourage holidays, days off - if there was no lock down, people would have already booked time to travel, to go on holiday, to be away from work. Make sure you remind them that they can do so now.

  • Don't force social time over conferencing - it only adds up to screen time. If you do so then use 'work hours' so that your team has time to switch off work related screens

  • Prevent screen overload - are there other tools you can use to get your teams communicate, other channels. Have a healthy and varied mix

My personal biggest challenges during lock down:

  • Not feeling part of a team

  • Not easy to connect the dots

  • Communication

  • organic and contextual is no more - you need a call a slack and you have to wait for response

  • Collaboration is harder

  • Zoom overload -> I need a year off Zoom! Don't talk to me about zoom

  • Lack of balance

  • Decision overload

  • Working with different timezones is even harder as it is so tempting to work any hour of the day with no commute you just open your laptop

  • No definition of home - I used to love being 'Home' some times I would take a day off to just be at home while everyone else is working and I do sit and do nothing! Now an hour aimless walk feels like a chore and does not have quite the same effect

  • Seeing my team heading towards burn out (with me leading the way)

  • Not having enough time to work out and variety of work outs

  • Using headphones all the time - the noise really tires me

  • No place to hide to be alone

What I do to bring balance back to my team and myself

  • Be kind, be patient

  • Be the first to encourage the team to close off work for the day and lead by example

  • Positive reinforcement daily

  • Patience - things take longer and that's OK. Gives you a chance to increase quality of work

  • Reduce exposure to media - news stories, social media mindless chatter, white noise

  • Build healthy habits but also a variety of habits - exercise, read, stare at the wall😄

  • Be sure to have time to do nothing - and I mean nothing….like nothing nothing

  • Talk to others and share my concerns, thoughts and experience - new ideas come out so quickly once I start sharing!

  • Constant revision of what works and what does not work so that the tool kit can improve and expand

Don't forget that just because Covid has been here for a while the rest of the world stops. People are experiencing loosing relatives and family ( not necessarily to covid), financial pressure, experiencing limits for the first time, anxiety spikes. We are surrounded by screens and noise all the time from wake up to going to bed - we never switch off, now even more within a closed environment.

If there is one thing I encourage you to do is strive for Balance.

Balance does not mean 50/50, does not mean segregation of work vs life. I am not a fan of work-life balance but I am a fan of Balance overall. If you start to segregate work, life, food, training and think about balancing it all then you are adding even more variables that you feel you need to balance and this list can grow so long that you feel lost and unable to see how to balance.

Take time to do nothing - don't let burnout catch up with you or your team!

Author: Izzy Raffy

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