Mitigating Staff Burnout in Your Practice

By: - Blog , Business Owners , Consulting Services

A year ago – April 2020 – 2.6 billion people had gone into lockdown. Like so many others, Private Practice Transitions was suddenly trying to figure out how to work remotely.  And just like everyone else, we faced new challenges on how to best service our clients and collaborate effectively.

“In the first weeks of the Pandemic, most organizations were expecting it to end quickly. Remote workers were given a return-by date of one month. Then another month. Then in May, big tech companies like Facebook and Google extended working from home to the end of the year. (They have since extended it well into 2021.) In the meantime, people were left to figure out their new WFH [work from home] arrangements largely on their own.”  Jennifer Moss, “Beyond Burned Out,” Harvard Business Review

It wasn’t long before many private practices started seeing another side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the long months of working remotely with our clients who are most often selling a law firm, selling an accounting practice, or selling a physical therapy practice, it was becoming apparent that regular work stress was taking a back seat to something more invasive: Burnout.

Burnout Is Beyond Stress

It’s important to understand there is a big difference between normal exhaustion following a busy day and the seemingly never-ending fatigue of burnout.  In an article for the Journal of Accountancy, Rachel Montañez, a career coach and speaker based in Orlando, Florida, warned not to blur the line between burnout and stress.   Adding, “Burnout is a condition that results from chronic professional stress.” Writer Paul McDonald describes burnout as “a response to excessive, prolonged tension that leaves professionals feeling mentally, physically and emotionally drained.” The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has three core characteristics:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

In a survey conducted in August of 2020 by Mental Health America, 75% of the respondents reported they were experiencing work-related burnout – 50% attributed the burnout directly to the pandemic.

According to the survey, just 5% of employed workers said their mental health was poor or very poor before the pandemic. –  this number has nearly tripled in the past year.

remote work and mental health

Furthermore, for the 65% of those surveyed working remotely, the additional stress of remote work dramatically influenced the burnout rate of those employees.

The over-arching truth is this:  2020 was an incredibly stressful year, and the rise in burnout is off the charts.  This is as true for owners and staff of private practices such as accounting firms, law firms, and physical therapy clinics as it is for nearly every other business out there.

Blurred Lines Breed Burnout

Before the pandemic, it was widely understood the main reason for burnout was overwork.  During the pandemic, however, the workday was further complicated by the blurred lines of working from home, more meetings, and often a longer workday.

According to a study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the amount of time remote workers spend in meetings – primarily virtually – has increased by 13% in the past year.  The average workday is now 48 minutes longer!

Every day we hear more and more people are getting vaccinated.  Stay at home orders have been lifted.  Still, there is a great deal of uncertainty about being back in the office full time.  The good news / bad news push and pull are doing nothing to stop the rise of burnout.

Look for Signs of Burnout

Even though so many are working remotely, it is still possible to spot early warning signs of burnout.  We are all in this pandemic together, so it is on all of us to be in touch with our co-workers. 

Here is a quick list of some red flags to look for in your co-workers from Paul McDonald’s article “Pandemic-Era Burnout: How to Protect Your Finance Team’:

  • A usually positive co-worker has developed a negative attitude.
  • The quality of work has declined; mistakes have increased.
  • There is an increase in missed deadlines.

Keep in mind what seemed insignificant in a co-worker’s behavior a year ago, may be very significant today. The despair and challenges of living in a COVID-19 world has affected different people in different ways.

Looking out for your co-workers is one thing; protecting yourself from burnout is another. In the article “6 Tips for Mitigating and Recovering from Burnout’ published in the Journal of Accountancy on March 15, 2021, writer Hannah Pitstick offers suggestions on how to avoid – or at least lessen – burnout at work.  Aside from setting firm boundaries around your time and taking micro-breaks, one of the most compelling tips is what she describes as “the 20% rule.”

#1 Best Tip for Dealing with Burnout

Spend up to 20% of your time performing the most meaningful aspects of your work.

The idea is to take a deep dive into all the tasks and various components that make up your particular job.  From that list, determine which of those you find the most important and meaningful to you.  Then, build more of those into your workweek until you reach that 20%.  If you can’t delegate some of the less meaningful work, then consciously schedule it in small chunks across several days. You can also try to automate some of those tasks. For example, if you feel stressed about sending dozens of similar emails to touch base with clients, investigate how to send automated messages instead of crafting emails on the spot.

Prepare – There Will Be Another Crisis

As with every business challenge, there are valuable lessons to be learned.  The last 12 months have reinforced the demands of running a business, supporting your staff, and managing circumstances beyond your control.

No one could have anticipated the overwhelming level of burnout we have all seen this past year. But we can learn from it. Now is the time to get systems in place to avoid a repeat when the next crisis hits – and it will.

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