Leading Through the Exhaustion

By Katie Navarra April 2, 2021

​Human resource professionals have become the front-line workers for businesses of all sizes amid the pandemic. Now more than ever, staff is turning to HR for support in juggling work and family and personal stresses.

New pandemic-related laws and regulations pop up and must be followed. Policies and expectations for remote work have to be created and enforced. HR leaders are experiencing unprecedented levels of exhaustion.

Ines Gramegna, co-founder of Skylyte, compares the pandemic to the Great Recession, which she dubbed the "crisis of the CFO." Skylyte is a coaching company that partners with employers to address compassion and burnout.

"In many ways, this crisis and pandemic have been the crisis of CHROs and HR leaders," she said. "A few factors driving the additional exhaustion are cognitive overload, emotional burden and anxiety. To top it all off, many HR leaders' cognitive and emotional overloads are magnified by reduced resources."

"Decision fatigue is where I'm feeling the most exhausted," said Corinne Mahaffey, an HR business operations specialist at the consulting firm Eliassen Group, which is headquartered in Reading, Mass. "[In 2020,] we made decisions on March 2 that did not work on March 31, and those new decisions didn't work on April 15. In HR, we like to solve and optimize to make things better, but things have not been stagnant long enough for us to feel like that is happening."

As exhaustion snowballs, it becomes harder to make objective decisions. There is no magic trick or cure-all that can eliminate the exhaustion. It may also be unrealistic to take time off. But there are strategies you can use to find respite from the pressure.

Acknowledge the Signs of Exhaustion

It is hard to recognize and admit that exhaustion is impacting decision-making and daily life. Gramegna calls this the boiling-frog syndrome, a metaphor for not realizing you are in trouble until it's too late: A frog placed into a pot of tepid water that gets gradually hotter doesn't realize the danger until it's too late and the water is boiling. Similarly, during the pandemic, our exhaustion compounds continuously so that our distress is incremental rather than instantaneous. Also, because exhaustion and burnout have a negative stigma, we don't want to admit we're feeling them.

Tiredness is the most obvious signal of fatigue, but physical symptoms can also include falling asleep in the middle of the day, an inability to focus, migraines, and complications such as gastrointestinal issues or infections.

Beyond the physical symptoms, changes in thinking patterns are indications of exhaustion. Losing interest in things that were once energizing, reactive decision-making and a feeling of dread can also be signs.

"Usually, when you feel very exhausted, your workplace presence and product will also suffer," Gramegna said. "You start to lose focus."

She recommends looking for signals such as forgetfulness that lead to missed appointments or deadlines, decreased work quality, difficulty getting into a flow and feeling that interacting with people on your team has become a chore.

Company Policies to Fight Fatigue

Initiatives that acknowledge exhaustion overload are becoming common. Citigroup announced Zoom-free Fridays—with exceptions—to offer employees a break from constantly being on video.

Mahaffey has observed an increasing trend in companies encouraging staff to take breaks, get outside and do something other than work. Her team has a chat channel called "Out and About." Team members post photos of themselves taking a walk at lunch or sitting on the porch for 10 minutes.

"I think that making it OK to take care of yourself and not feel a need to be locked into a computer 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. is extremely important," she said. "It's a culture shift that I believe could be instrumental in long-term work/life balance as we enter our new normal."

At the Eliassen Group, meetings have been capped at 45 minutes instead of one hour. The extra 15 minutes gives mental space before the next meeting and time for a bathroom break or snack. On Fridays, meetings must end by 3 p.m.

Personal Tactics for Leading Through Exhaustion

When we are so used to having to respond immediately to threats and needs, taking our time to think through the options can be difficult. But sometimes taking time is the best course of action. For instance, when a team member calls Mahaffey with a complicated request at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday, she resists the urge to make a decision at that moment. She acknowledges the individual's concern and explains that she is not prepared to react immediately.

"It was eye-opening that I needed this as much as I did," she said. "I tell them that I want to listen and hear about everything they are going through. Then I tell them I don't have the capacity to make that decision and that I will get back to them the next day or on Monday."

Having a network of supporters with whom you can share the upsetting things that happen at work is critical. But it's not enough just to vent about a bad day; look for individuals who understand what you're going through. Choose people who will listen compassionately and can remain calm and attentive during the conversation.

"You need an outlet because you can't keep everything to yourself," Mahaffey said. "You have to build yourself a network of people who understand and who are in a similar space so you can engage."

But be careful: Misery loves company. Venting and sharing upsetting circumstances can lead to wanting validation for how you're feeling. Be cautious of seeking too much affirmation so you don't end up piling on and perpetuating the cycle of exhaustion.

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.



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