Faces of HR

Avoiding Massive Employee Burnout

There are so many ways the coronavirus has impacted the workforce in the United States, whether it’s pay reductions, the challenges of working from home with a child, an increase in mental health issues, difficulty getting certain foods or medicines, or one of a thousand other things. If organizations do not handle this crisis as it gets into month 3 and beyond, employees will start burning out—if they haven’t already.burnout

I recently spoke with an HR professional who is very aware of this concern and was kind enough to share her encouraging approach to making sure all of her employees are getting the support they need.

Meet Adrienne Donovan, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Tapad, a global leader in digital identity resolution.

How did you get into HR?

These successful businesses, and a few mentors and people close to me, suggested, “Hey, you might want to tick all the boxes you’re looking for.” Shortly after college, I started out as an HR assistant for a school administration, and that’s really where I cut my teeth into HR.

After working that job for a couple of years, I decided it was finally time to move to New York. I took a role as a generalist at an innovation company. That’s really where the story began. I mean, once I took on that generalist role, I really started to come into my own and realize pretty quickly that this is my calling and the path I wanted my career to take. It’s almost 15 years later, and here we are.

I have a theory that the role of HR has a magnetism that draws in the right people, which is, I think, very interesting because I don’t think a lot of things are like that. There’s something about HR that’s very special. I think it’s just because it’s so broad that it can grab people in from so many different places.

I totally agree. I think you really have to have an innate passion for it. I don’t think it’s something that can be completely learned or forced. You acquire a taste over time. I do think there needs to be some natural pull toward it, especially if you want to be successful.

Part of the reason for that is it’s not all glitz and glamor. I mean, it’s very rare that any job is, but you feel some really tough, sensitive issues that can weigh heavily on your heart and your mind. Not everybody wants to sign up for that in their professional life, which I can completely understand.

Speaking of tough situations, we all find ourselves in one now. Everyone is working from home, which brings its own challenges. You’ve got people who maybe aren’t so technically savvy having to suddenly set up their home office for the first time.

Another example is, of course, people who are working home with their kids. How have you encountered this? Do you have kids yourself, if you don’t mind my asking?

I have a 20-month-old; he is running around, and he is in prime experimentation, testing limits. He’s pulling things down and putting himself in physical danger. It’s been quite challenging, to be honest. We’re 5 or 6 weeks into this, and my husband and I are now finally settling into a groove.

But, there’s one thing that’s true about just kids and toddlers: You can’t really rely on anything to be like a typical day. Even when you feel like you’ve put in the necessary structure and you finally cracked when nap time will work, it can all be blown up in a matter of seconds.

Yeah because then, they’ll grow a new set of teeth, and they’re cranky for a week, or they learn a new skill, like climbing by putting things on top of each other or whatever it is. Their little universe, whether you want it to, just keeps expanding. I will say this, because we were there just a year ago, a year and a half I guess: They do put themselves in less mortal peril as time goes on.

If my daughter had her way, she would dominate every second of my attention at every moment of the day. That’s the thing I think a lot of employees and employers that don’t have kids don’t really understand. Doing even very basic things like making coffee can include 10 interruptions and take 30 minutes. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone does it. I would think it’s virtually impossible to work. How are you getting your work done?

I’m very fortunate to have my husband here with me to split the responsibilities. He is a small business owner, so he has a little bit more flexibility in the sense that he and his business partner can really make the time to leave whenever it’s convenient for them.

Obviously, with client obligations, there are some challenges there, but I would say he really does have flexibility there and for me, as well. I think one of Tapad’s strengths is its ability to be flexible around employee situations.

At the start of this, I was communicating with my boss, Sigvart Voss Eriksen, the CEO, saying, “Look, I still feel very confident that I can deliver on everything I need to deliver on and might just look a little bit different. I may need to take an hour or 2 hours during the day and shift that working time in the evening.”

I think what’s made it feasible is that, from the very start, he said, “It’s no question. We’re all just doing the best we can in this situation. Let’s just keep communicating about it proactively and early, and as long as we can plan around it, it’s not a problem.”

I think I’ve also had to become really vigilant about how I’m structuring my day. I’m making sure that in the morning, I still have a routine where I’m getting up at the same time. I usually get up, I’m having my coffee, and I’m making sure that I’m scheduling my meetings at a time when I think nap time will happen.

It’s really just trying to optimize for the situation at hand and, I think more importantly, keeping in perspective that there is going to be a productivity hit here and that’s OK. Again, I think it’s just a time when we all need to be a little bit more realistic about productivity and some of the challenges we’re going to face during this formal period.

For a lot of people—I mean, in my experience—the impetus or the pressure for being productive when you have a reasonable or flexible work environment is themselves. I think people are thinking, “Yeah, OK, maybe I won’t be as productive,” but then they feel obligated still to do all of the work.

Let’s take the example of two people working from home who have kids. What I’ve heard a lot of people are doing is splitting the day up so that one person will watch the kid or kids for like 4 hours while the other person works.

Then they swap, and then they make up the other 4 hours when the kids are asleep. And that brings me to the real question: How sustainable is this? Because some people are talking about, “Sure, maybe in a couple of months, I’ll be back at work.” Meanwhile, for some, this could be a lot longer than that. How sustainable is that even in the best of circumstances? Do you think you can do this for months? Years?

I think every person’s interpretation and answer to this would be different here. But speaking for myself, today, this does not feel sustainable in the long term. I think there would need to be shifts in the way we’re working.

Maybe that means a shorter workday or working fewer hours overall. I think people have shifted their working hours during this period to times that are better for them. For example, engineers might be starting their day at 10:30 but ending at 7:00.

As a mom, I’m making sure that by 5:00, unless I have a really important commitment, I’m wrapping up my day. I think there would need to be some serious shifts in the way we look at our typical workday and a mind-set shift around. You can only be productive if you are working in an office with set hours—I think that is very quickly becoming a seriously antiquated notion.

I also think there are so many things about this situation that are scary, but it’s also a time for innovation. We are in the biggest work-from-home experiment, and it’s just been thrust upon us in a minute, and we’re all being forced to adapt, whether we like it or not.

Of all the HR trends for the next 5 years, remote work is on the top of the league every single time. For somebody like me, I think it’s exciting because it’s forcing that innovation and forcing HR leaders and leaders of organizations to confront what the next phase of work will actually look like.

I think there are those of us who are lucky to have retained our jobs and to have the support of a partner. Not everyone is so lucky. In fact, many were already living at the edge of what was possible before the coronavirus. This extra shove can mean the difference between keeping it all together and not keeping it together.

I’m thinking specifically about single parents who were lucky enough to take their jobs home, but they don’t have the partner there to look after the kid. It’s a real problem and an invisible one, too. No one knows that the guy in the house next door or the woman next door is listening to his or her 3-year-old scream all day while he or she is falling further and further behind at work.

I will be completely honest: This is one of the things that keeps me up at night—the fact that, in a remote scenario, we are 100% essentially relying on employees to come to us for support. It’s a little bit easier, in my opinion, when you’re out of the physical office, you can see body language.

I think HR professionals are pretty good at sussing that out and picking up on those things. Make a concerted effort to connect with all of your team leads, and make sure each manager is during one-on-ones. Now is the time to maybe take 10 minutes at the beginning of each one-on-one and actually ask people, “How are you doing?”

Now is the time we really need to embrace being a little bit more empathetic and digging a little bit deeper with our direct reports. I think we need to be asking the questions. I think we need to be saying, “What can we do to support you more?” I think Tapad has been quite successful at creating this open-door policy culture.

We’re lucky, in a way, that employees feel very comfortable voicing challenges they’ve been saying, but what about for the people who don’t come forward? What are the other channels we’re opening up for them if they’re not comfortable getting into their concerns?

We do weekly engagement pulse surveys in which employees can submit anonymous feedback or just say something that’s on their mind, and we make it a point to address that, as well. It’s just the act of opening up as many channels as possible and hoping that one of them speaks to the person who is on the edge or feeling like he or she just can’t go on anymore. That way, we can step in, and we could say, “We are here to support you, and here are all the resources we can provide.”

I assume that as an HR professional, you had some crisis management plan for various crises. Did you feel like those prepared you for this? Were you able to easily adapt them to this scenario?

I think people who were telling you they were 100% prepared for this were not being truthful, and I’m not going to say we were 100% prepared. However, Tapad is very fortunate in the sense that, because we’re a tech company, we were able to pretty seamlessly transition over to remote work before the COVID pandemic.

We’ve always had a fairly flexible policy around working remotely. The expectation is, for the most part, everybody’s showing up to the office every day, and we think that’s important and builds a really strong and productive culture, but we’re also very flexible if someone needs to work from home.

We had conversations, I would say, a couple of weeks prior as an executive team before everything happened, asking, “Can we do this?” The executives went through an exercise in which they had to identify any of the risks or gaps they would see if all of a sudden, we weren’t able to come into the office.

Thankfully, that list was short for Tapad. I can’t stress enough that we’re so fortunate in that way. With that being said, there are a ton of challenges that come along with this, and there are challenges you’re forced to be reactive to because you’ve just never been in this situation before.

There is a strange pressure, now that we are all stuck at home, to be as productive as ever, not just at work.

I feel like there’s been so much content out there pushing productivity and what you are reorganizing today. From just a mental perspective, personally, I think it’s pushing the wrong message.

I read an article in HuffPo yesterday, and it was a great reminder. It basically said, “This is a period of grieving for people, and that’s OK. It’s OK to be upset about basically life as we know it changing overnight. Don’t feel pressure to reorganize your pantry or acquire a new sewing skill. That’s not really what this time should be for.”

That’s nice because it’s letting people off the hook a little bit and saying to people, “It’s OK to be kind to yourself during this period.”

There is something about handling the early days of a crisis like this that is, in some ways, easier than maintaining a healthy outlook as the crisis drags on and on. People can’t stay focused forever, and they can’t stay afraid forever. At some point, everyone is going to lose the early energy driven by change and fear and start burning out.

I fully agree, and I think it’s something that, at an executive level, we talk about. I see the narrative of just doing business as usual and there is no impact, and saying we are going to be fine is going to fall flat. I don’t actually think that is going to be a narrative that proves to be successful. I can speak personally to what I’ve been trying to do with my team specifically: If it’s a Friday or it’s a Thursday and it’s 65 degrees, I’m saying to them, “Guys, let’s all commit that we’re going to wrap up by 1:00 today.”

I fully trust that they are still going to do the work they need to do, but I tell them, “Everybody, get outside, and send a photo on Slack of what you are doing.” I think those are the things employees tune into during these times. We’re not going to look back and say, “We hit every OKR and every single goal of the quarter during the COVID pandemic.”

That’s what matters to me. I think that any leader or employer that is not honest with itself about that has a losing strategy. I think everybody just needs to dig deeper and really embrace the human side a little bit more in this situation. And I think that’s been happening.

Humans consistently surprise me in situations like this. People really are so capable of doing good, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised in that way. I think the narrative needs to be very focused on the idea that we’re taking this day by day, and we’re not going to pretend that everything’s all hunky-dory and fine; it’s OK to have a bad day.