More than a year after being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone has been dealt a shock to the system in all aspects of their lives. The effects cascaded into work as people did their best to juggle their personal and professional lives under one roof. Of course, most of us feel drained by it all. Part of effectively leading employees through such trying times hinges on understanding how the brain and body functions.

Burnout is the Most Pressing Issue

One way employees have been afflicted by the pandemic is through burnout, a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion brought on by long-term stress. A study found that 70% of people are feeling the effects of burnout.

Humans handle burnout by drawing on a collection of their mental and physical adaptive systems for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations. These systems are connected to our amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our fight/flight/freeze response. While we are fortunate for this brain functioning and adaptability, we can only sustain this surge capacity for so long – usually about six months.

Considering all the ways that burnout affects people, this is cause for concern. Burnout is characterized by three major components:

  • Emotional exhaustion, which is the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long.
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment and an unconquerable sense of futility; the feeling that nothing you do makes a difference.
  • Depersonalization, which is the depletion of empathy, caring and compassion.

It’s easy to see how burnout can translate into lower employee engagement and productivity. Fortunately, every company leader and manager can encourage practical steps their employees can take to recover from burnout and even thrive in the midst of a challenging time.

Encourage and Support Self-care

It’s well known that good nutrition, sufficient sleep and exercise – all part of self-care – are important for our bodies in general and even more important during times of stress.

Sleep is a key tool in the self-care arsenal. Harvard Medical School dedicates an entire division to “sleep medicine” and sleep’s profound effect on mood, focus and mental performance among other things. Better sleep has even been associated with enhanced creativity and better performance at work.

Encouraging and supporting your employees to eat healthy and exercise can also go a long way to helping them counteract the debilitating effects of burnout. Many organizations offer direct support and even incentives for dialing up self-care, which goes hand in hand with mindfulness.

Tap Into the Power of Mindfulness

While mindfulness was once reserved for yoga gurus and meditation retreats, studies have shown the real and powerful benefits of this practice. During mindfulness, the brain changes. The central nervous system becomes calm, and both our emotional intelligence and intuition increase.

Consider the groundbreaking research of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. He found that people who meditate are able to focus longer and are less likely to worry about future events. When something stressful does happen, they experience less distress in the moment and return quickly to their normal state. Another study by Dr. Sara Lazar at the Harvard University Medical School found that a daily mindfulness practice shrinks the amygdala, making it less reactive in as little as eight weeks.

So, mindfulness during a pandemic is valuable: It inoculates us against the harmful effects of change and can be an antidote for the accompanying stress. As a general wellness practice, mindfulness can play a powerful role and works best when employees are also taking care of themselves in general.

Mindfulness takes many forms, and many organizations offer programs that help employees find the one that works best for them and incentives for sticking with it.

Get Playful

Studies have shown that people who play are more adaptive and innovative and enjoy more positive relationships. According to the National Institute for Play, play is vital for human health and well-being. It generates optimism, spurs curiosity, fosters empathy, cultivates perseverance and leads to mastery.

Creativity and play also go hand in hand. When we play, we move into a physical and emotional state that allows our creativity to flow more naturally. As our logical and analytical networks take a break, our brain can start making insightful connections.

Neuroscience has shown that playful environments powerfully shape the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain where the highest level of cognitive processing takes place. Knowing that, it makes sense that you stifle creative energy when you limit play. In addition, playing sends a signal to your body that the environment is safe again, allowing it to come down from its high-alert status.

So, help your employees find a way to build more play into their days. Whether something simple and solitary or complex and collaborative, the key is to make it fun. Ideally, facilitate a good play session at least once per week; more is even better. And keep in mind the result of not making this a priority. According to Brian Sutton-Smith, a play theorist: “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”

Take Advantage of This Unique Opportunity

While it might seem counterintuitive to be developing new skills right now, challenging times are opportune for just that. The pandemic has put us all through a crash course in important skills, such as staying calm and adapting to change. For managers, this time of stress is perfect for learning how to lead people who are experiencing burnout.

Our brains are powerful allies at this time, and you can tap into that power by encouraging your employees to embrace self-care, mindfulness and play. As you and your employees continue adapting to the changes that the pandemic launches, finding ways to reduce the stress will go a long way toward creating a healthy, thriving workplace.