The Shift went live on Thursday April 20th, hosting an 'Ask Me Anything' session on the topic of frontline stress and wellbeing. Ahead of the event, we asked our audience to send in their questions about burnout on the frontline. The response we got was phenomenal.
Here, we list — and answer — the questions that weren't covered in the live discussion (now available to watch on-demand). These questions are all in search of practical insights: how to help employees who are struggling with burnout, what strategies other managers have had success with, why managers sometimes don't feel confident handling burnout conversations and how to build that muscle.
A big thank you to our 'Ask Me Anything' panel who helped put these answers together:
- Chris Stewart, Managing Director of Minding Minds, a Mental Health First Aid training company
- Ian Gordon, former President of Administrative Operations at Elara Caring
- Simon White, VP of People at Blink
Understanding frontline burnout
Q: What are the early signs of burnout?
Burnout can show itself in several ways and, because we're dealing with people, everyone is individual in their responses. That said, the 'warning signs' are usually:
- Exhaustion/tiredness — You see this when employees still look tired on a Monday morning; the weekends don't feel long enough and just aren't touching the sides in relieving the fatigue. When tiredness becomes extreme, people will not only feel physically drained, but they'll also lose interest in the tasks they used to find enjoyable. This is also a warning sign for depression.
- Difficulty concentrating — Coupled with the above, employees may experience a 'butterfly mind', flitting from one thought to another. They may chase issues or tasks, but never stay on them long enough to make progress.
- Preoccupation with work and being overly driven — It might sound counterintuitive, but some people approaching burnout will throw themselves into their work and lose themselves within it...
- Presenteeism/drop in productivity — ...And yet, being 'at work' doesn't mean you're getting work done. It takes a person longer to complete their tasks when they start to burn out. 10 hours of work may only reap 2 hours of results; they're working more hours, with less output, and lower quality. Of course, the opposite can be a warning sign too. Some people will do less, attend work less, or leave work early due to a lack of interest or bandwidth.
- Loss of motivation or outlook — This can be a very corrosive warning sign, and we should always be looking for changes to someone's regular demeanor. Are they displaying more negativity than usual? Are they becoming more cynical? It's unlikely that the individual will notice this change in outlook as they are already in that belief system. It's a manager's role to notice this change. It's an important 'tell' that something is seriously wrong.
- Physical signs — Stress shows itself physically as well. Difficulty sleeping, gastrointestinal issues, aches and pains, low immunity and so higher levels of sickness; if someone is falling ill more often than they used to, burnout may be the root cause.
Q: How can we have an immediate impact on someone who is struggling with mental health?
As mentioned above, everyone's symptoms will be different — and their needs will be too. One thing we can all do is develop the skills to spot the warning signs, approach the person for a conversation, uncover the issues, and respond to their individual needs. There has to be a conversation. That's the most immediate action we can take to help.
Q: Is there a point of no return with frontline burnout or can it be reversed with early identification?
We can think of burnout like an elastic band. You can really stretch it, and though it's under stress, it's still holding. Hold it at a stress point for too long, though, and you'll alter the shape and elasticity of the band forever, even when it's released.
And what happens to an elastic band when we pull it too tight without relieving it? It breaks. You can tie the band back up and it will still serve its function, but it will never regain its original capacity for stretch or stress.
People's capacity for stress never seems to return to their pre-burnout point. Their stress container has shrunk with the experience. But there's a positive within this: when people do return to work post-burnout, they have little choice but to take stress management seriously. People may focus in different ways and manage stress much more effectively.
So, the answer is yes, burnout can be reversed. But given that the warning signs include a preoccupation with work and a drop in productivity or change in emotional outlook, it's up to the organization to have systems and support in place to pick up on these signs and stop them from developing. The individual may not even know they are going through these early or mid stages of burnout.
We have tachographs for lorry drivers and pilots because we know the risks associated with a lack of relief or downtime. The same applies to our people. The company tachograph must look at more than just hours logged, though. Clear and communicated support, with honest feedback sought, and ongoing risk assessment are all essential.
Q: What is the top question you're getting from managers who are on-site and helping lead the frontline?
The biggest question frontline leaders usually have is: "Even if I think there's an issue, how do I broach talking about mental health? I'm not qualified to deal with this. I have enough to deal with already. I am under-supported and under-skilled".
Q: How can you fight and mitigate stress in a mostly remote or deskless work environment? As someone in the corporate office and not close to the frontline, what can I do to help?
Start with communication. This is one of the most powerful ways of fighting and mitigating stress: you have to understand how your frontline is doing and they have to know that you care.
Next, there's advocacy. As a leader, you're either in or close to the seat of power, and you can get buy-in at the top for frontline wellbeing support.
Third, you need to make life easier for the frontline where you can. Reduce the stress that comes from unnecessary cognitive load. Help make them more efficient at work with proper tooling that makes a meaningful difference to their day-to-day.
Q: What can an individual do to support their own mental health?
Check for the warning signs in yourself, where possible, and start to learn what the beginning of stress feels like for you. It's important to take responsibility for your own stress and wellbeing, and to communicate with others when you're feeling the symptoms.
Wellbeing solutions and strategies for frontline teams
Q: Do you have any unique or innovative ways of improving engagement with key wellbeing initiatives? How do you increase morale?
One great example comes from Salutem, a leading care provider in the UK. Like many businesses, Salutem's staff were left feeling stressed and with low morale following the pandemic. The organization was disconnected and disengaged, and Salutem's leaders wanted a new, inspiring way to give employees a voice.
Salutem launched S.E.L.F (the Salutem Employee Listening Forum), with managers using Blink to nominate S.E.L.F Reps using the Feed. These Reps were responsible for moderating Blink Channels for their regions and following up with their teams. Co-workers were encouraged to share their thoughts and have candid conversations regarding their concerns and ideas for improvement.
Given how essential conversation and communication is for promoting wellbeing and mitigating burnout, creating these connections can deliver a lot of impact, fast.
Social and peer proof can also be powerful. There will always be workers who appreciate the importance of taking care of themselves more readily than others. Enlist these people to advocate for your wellbeing initiatives — as fellow frontline workers, they might just be more influential than management.
Q: What are your tips for making stress management accessible and relevant for frontline workers to use in real time? What delivers immediately?
The first truth we need to remember is that what works for desk-based employees typically won't work for the frontline. A frontline worker's 'real time' situations look vastly different compared to someone sitting in head office; they are out in the 'field', on the go, with little access to desktop files. This means that any stress management support we provide has to be easy to access from anywhere, at any time.
Not only that, it has to be easy to access from a usability standpoint too. Adding another platform or tool to the frontline's already unintuitive tool stack will do more harm than good. Don't labor them with another set of log-in details to remember in order to access wellbeing resources.
This is where an 'all through one' employee app like Blink has value.
Q: In healthcare specifically, how do you get people to take care of themselves when they've cared for others all day?
This is the classic 'Caregiver's Dilemma'. Caregivers are amazing people and, by choice, they place their health and wellbeing second to that of the people they care for. And, to be clear, that's not just how they are at work — it's how they are in every aspect of their lives.
We can encourage better self-care in caregivers by helping them realize that poor self-care will only render them unable to care for others. More than that, they may become the one thing they all fear: a burden on the people around them.
You can also run on-site check-up days for caregivers, where other healthcare professionals come in to perform mental health assessments — like a physical health check, but for stress and wellbeing. Doing so not only makes stress awareness more convenient for the caregiver, but you create a dedicated time slot in their otherwise fully-booked days.
Q: How can managers become more confident and comfortable in leading wellbeing conversations with their frontline workforce?
This question was answered during the live event. But given that managers often feel under-qualified, under-skilled, and under-supported when it comes to approaching these topics, it's worth recapping the answer again.
Confidence and comfort come from two-way conversations around stress and wellbeing. Ian referred to this as 'inverting the hierarchy' — managers making themselves vulnerable to open dialogue up, being present, and acting as a 'servant leader'. Chris explained that managers don't have to stand back and pretend they are all well; empathizing with an employee's experience makes everyone feel more at ease.
These conversations are a core part of your job, says Ian. Once you start breaking down those barriers you remove the fear factor for everyone. You're just another person; someone they trust to have their back and whose job it is to support them. Once you've shown that you value your employees, they will feel much more able to open up to you with personal and professional truths, and you will feel more able to start these conversations too.
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