Burnout isn't always this visible. Credit: AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez

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The Virus

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 45% decrease from two weeks earlier, averaging about 70,000 new cases per day. About 12% of the US has received at least one vaccine dose, and the weekly supply of vaccines is projected to roughly double over the coming month. President Biden said the US could be “approaching normalcy” by the end of the year, and experts increasingly believe this summer could feel “normal.”

The business impact: Unemployment claims remain elevated, as recovery from the worst of the crisis is slow. Retail sales were healthier than expected in January, rising over 5% thanks at least partly to the last round of stimulus checks. Americans started 4.4 million businesses last year, 24% more than the year before. Growth was strongest in retail, warehouse, and health-care startups. Lumber prices are double what they were just three months ago, amid a remodeling boom and strong housing demand.

Focus on Tactics for Fighting Burnout

I’ve been thinking about the recent survey where researchers asked CEOs to rate the stress of their employees on a scale of 1-10 and the average score was 9.1. People are burned out. But how can we all best address this? 

I recently reached out to Humu, a company co-founded by former Google people operations head Laszlo Bock. Humu uses artificial intelligence to analyze its client companies’ employee surveys and then give individuals in the organization “nudges,” or small things they can do to contribute to improving things. 

There’s more on how Humu works here. But I was most interested in what the data about the state of its clients’ workforces were saying, and what measures seemed to be making a difference. To understand that, I recently spoke with Stefanie Tignor, Humu’s head of data science and insights. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

What are you seeing in the workforce today? 

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a lot of folks asking for help with remote work. Just collaborating and understanding how to work together in this new environment, as well as social connection. The thing that we now start to really see resonating is burnout, is inability to disconnect from work, and just this general sense of exhaustion.

At this point, folks have figured out rhythms for communicating with their colleagues. Maybe not perfectly—they still need help—but folks have figured out how to muddle through. But now it’s the day-to-day of every single day looking exactly the same, sitting at your dining room table. Eating all of my meals and doing all my work in the same exact space and having the same exact view every day, it’s really a recipe for burnout. We’re seeing that a lot. Particularly that inability to disconnect from work, to know when I can have a ritual where it’s the end of my workday and to actually mark that in some way.

How intense are the signals that you’re seeing? Is this a five-alarm fire for the managers and leaders of these companies?

Yes, I would say so. I don’t want to make it seem like it’s the case everywhere. But it is certainly something that leaders and managers should be paying attention to. What’s interesting is that we see that coupled with really high retention numbers right now because of economic situations, because people don’t want to start a new job remotely, because people are worried about their own company’s future. Maybe they’re worried about moving somewhere new and then being the first in and the first out, if something happens economically again, due to the pandemic. 

But the problem is that if you have these really high levels of stress and burnout, coupled with really high retention numbers, because people feel like they can’t leave, then the next thing is people start to get a sense of more stability, whatever that means. The second we see that, people will be out the door because they will just be so emotionally exhausted from their current jobs. And so I predict, given the data that I’ve seen, that we’re going to see massive job turnover in the future when folks are returning to offices because people have just been sad. They’ve had this building sense of burnout, but actually haven’t been able to do anything about it.

What are the things that people can prioritize to address burnout?

Creating very strong norms about off-hours communication. This has become increasingly difficult with the rise of technology, even before work from home. But with folks being able to reach you at any time now, it’s even more so the case. When you’re always in your home, you’re always right next to your work laptop, you are all the more reachable, and you all the more think that you should be working all the time.

Some really effective norms that folks can create are limiting communication hours, snoozing notifications, taking Slack off your phone if you use Slack, or taking your work email off your phone, since you probably won’t be far from your work computer these days. Importantly, a lot of this is it has to be reinforced from the top. It has to be reinforced from leadership and managers because if individual contributors try to disconnect but then leaders are pulling them into things constantly—that disrupts it. 

Are there other best practices?

Another way to reduce burnout is to create rituals within your day. We’ve lost a lot of rituals due to this pandemic and associated quarantine. I used to have an hour-long commute, both ways, and I’d walk from the train and I listened to a podcast and I’d have my coffee and then get on the train. That was really just a signal that my day is starting. Then I would have that in reverse in a signal that my day is ending. And now we just don’t have those rituals. Anything you can do to create that ritual—so for example, maybe you’ll have a specific cup of tea at the end of each day. And that cup of tea signals, it is time to stop working. There’s actually some folks that literally say ‘My day is over’ and shut the computer, which might be a little embarrassing. 

I had a colleague once who was working from home prior to the pandemic and he had a hat that he would put on when he was working and when he was not working, he’d take it off. That was a way, both to himself and to his family, to say when he was on or off duty.

What are other examples of levers?

Communicating the future plan for the team. We’re seeing that, even if you were okay at that previously as a manager, it can take a huge nose dive because everything feels so uncertain. Everything’s churning all the time. One example is rallying your team around a short-term mission. Maybe you’ll develop a one-month mission. And you’ll say for the next month, this is the mission of our team. This is what we’re striving toward. This is the one key objective, and that can help sort of in this frantic time when everything feels out of control, and you’re not sure what’s going on, you’re not sure what other people are working on. We have just this touchstone that we can all as a team come back to, to make sure that our work is contributing and that it’s meaningful.

Employee surveys show that there’s a lot of interest in having more feedback. Are there any practices that you’re encouraging around feedback right now?

One of the things that is important is to try to have explicit feedback conversations. I think a lot of folks try to weave the feedback into the day-to-day and don’t make explicit space for it. That creates two problems. Number one, it creates the problem where folks getting the feedback don’t recognize it as feedback. We encourage managers to be way too explicit, more explicit than you think you have to be—to say, ‘I am about to give you a piece of feedback. This is feedback for you.’ Really explicitly stating that, because there’s a lot of research that shows that sometimes managers are uncomfortable giving critical or constructive feedback, and then they couch their language so much, they sort of hedge, that the employee doesn’t actually even hear it as feedback. That’s a really sad thing because then they never get to improve. They have no idea. You’re saying ‘I gave them this feedback’ as the manager, but actually they didn’t even hear it. 

The best way to create a culture of feedback is to remember that anyone can provide valuable feedback to anyone at the organization. It is not the case that managers should just be giving their direct reports feedback. Direct reports often have really valuable feedback for their managers as well. Sometimes when we talk about feedback, folks zoom in on, ‘Oh, well, of course, that’s the thing that my manager does for me.’ But managers also can get incredibly valuable feedback from their direct reports. 

You can read a transcript of our full interview here, including a discussion of how managers are doing and how to improve communication. A new LinkedIn survey supports Tignor’s analysis that a large percentage of workers are “sheltering” in their current jobs, rather than risk a change during the pandemic. 

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

Safe spaces. Reams of research tout the benefits of psychological safety. But many organizations fall short on fostering an environment where all employees thrive. Here’s how and where to start, according to new McKinsey Global Survey findings.

What Else You Need to Know

You know long-term remote work is more than just marketing when companies start taking financial charges for it. 

  • Dropbox this week announced a $398 million impairment charge for “right-of-use and other lease related assets,” resulting in a big fourth-quarter loss. The San Francisco tech company in October announced a “virtual first” workplace approach.
  • Pinterest in August agreed to pay $90 million to get out of a lease for new space near its headquarters, saying it saved at least $440 million in future rent by doing so. 
  • Salesforce, which recently announced a flexible working approach, had previously said that it expected to write down up to $100 million during its fiscal fourth quarter for offices it no longer needs. 
  • Recreational Equipment Inc. in September sold a new headquarters in Seattle that it never moved into to Facebook, though the outdoors retailer said it made a profit on its investment in the site.

Researchers caution that there’s a social cost for entirely abandoning workplaces because they’re important for learning and building trust and culture—they suggest redesigning workspaces for hybrid working and as people return making sure that in-office time isn’t totally consumed by meetings.

Businesses shouldn’t “hector” workers to get vaccinated. The Business Roundtable, the club of big company CEOs, contends that “finger wagging” is counterproductive—recommending instead public education efforts and incentives. 

  • Many companies are offering bonuses to compensate workers for the time it takes to get vaccinated. 
  • Parents of teenagers surely have thoughts about whether hectoring is ever not counterproductive.

The gender pay gap disappears at the CEO level. Women chief executives earned 103 cents for every dollar earned by male CEOs in 2019, according to a new Morningstar analysis

  • But more broadly, the highest paid senior executive women earned just 85 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.
  • And female CEOs remain rare: there were 17 male CEOs for every female chief executive in the companies analyzed. Female CEOs of color are even less common.

Investors apparently don’t like it when a company raises its lowest-paid workers’ wages. Walmart shares fell more than 6% after it this week announced raises for 425,000 rank-and-file workers. Shares had fallen 10% when Walmart announced a big wage hike in 2015.

  • Never mind that half of Walmart’s hourly staff, or about 730,00 workers, will still make less than $15 per hour after the latest increase, even as the retailer had $13.5 billion in profits in its just-ended fiscal year. And Walmart CEO Douglas McMillon has opposed a $15 federal minimum wage.

The stock-market backlash highlights the hazards of tying executive pay to short-term stock moves—it can create crushing disincentives against corporate decision-makers actually doing the right thing morally. 

Hiring alliances are a powerful way for companies to shift endangered workers to where the jobs are. Dozens of companies with urgent staffing needs amid the crisis—like CVS, Amazon, Albertsons, Walgreens—struck partnerships with other employers to fast-track hiring of their idled workers. 

  • Amazon, for example, got tens of thousands of workers from 21 partners such as Uber, Lyft, and United Airlines last year, according to The Wall Street Journal. 
  • Allied companies generally set up special sites to recruit partners’ displaced staff, and expedite hiring.

Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

  • Think of the pandemic as a liminal time for your career. While it might feel like a lost year, researchers say it could also be an incubation period for professional reinvention. For the many of us who have experienced loss or hardship, they point to the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth. 
  • Take the time to write better emails. Careless emails produce misunderstandings, and convey lack of interest or appreciation.
  • Create “tokens” that people are rewarded for specific behavior or achievements. One company had a model spaceship that its leaders would award every two weeks to the team that had the most impact—it became a point of pride for teams to win the rocket. 
  • Don’t shove your desk against a windowless wall. It’s a rookie interior design mistake, and makes your home office look like a dorm room. “Nothing looks more sad and depressing,” one architect told The Wall Street Journal. He advises positioning it so you sit facing out into the room or at a window.


More proof that masks work, and large indoor gatherings without them are foolish. X Prize founder Peter Diamandis apologized for holding a conference indoors in late January after two dozen attendees and staff—who weren’t required to wear masks—tested positive. The 35-person audiovisual crew wore masks throughout the event, and did not report any infections.

Flexible work schedules could make for more ethical employees. Researchers have found that people behave less ethically when they’re feeling foggy and tired, as they’re less able to resist temptation. By letting employees decide to work when they’re most alert—such a late in the day for night owls—companies could reap the side benefit of more ethical behavior. 

The fashion-conscious are moving beyond Zoom collars. The latest trend is statement blouses and sweaters, and bolder fashion generally. (The leggings-and-sweatshirt look is apparently so 2020.) Think bright prints, oversized jewelry, and puffy sleeves—anything that might make you pop compared to the other squares in a Zoom lineup. Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman’s red Prada headband might offer some inspiration.

Thanks for reading our briefing about what companies are doing to navigate the continued reality of remote work, to reopen safely, and to reset their practices for the long-run. You can sign up here to receive it by email as well.