Five ways to prevent staff burnout during lockdown

Leaders can learn a lot about helping employees in times of stress by looking at how individuals approach problems. Using Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation Theory, Dr Megan Seibel looks at five ways burnout can be prevented.

With the third UK lockdown now underway, employee mental health is declining, staff absences are growing and motivation appears to be waning. Burnout has become a very real attrition risk for companies as we embrace further restrictions in the UK.

For decades, Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation Theory, measured by the KAI inventory, has offered insight into our hardwired, innate, preferences for problem solving.

When faced with a problem such as lockdown working practices, we naturally address it either as more adaptive (for example we prefer structure, we’re perceived as conforming, and we dislike ambiguity), or as more innovative (the polar opposite of an adaptor, operating outside of the structure, preferring to do things differently and perceived as disliking rules).

Neither style is better, just more or less appropriate at different stages of the problem. So, what can this tell us about how we react to the current lockdown? And can this theory be used to prevent burnout?

Here are five ways HR teams can help prevent burnout during the current – and perhaps future – lockdowns.

1. Provide clarity and agreement on structure

People struggling with workplace stress are at greater risk of burnout. When lockdown regulations are tightened, we each react differently. Adaptive leaders will hold on to what worked before and perhaps tighten it even more, while more innovative leaders may abandon those former policies and replace them with new ones for the sake of doing it differently.

If the lockdown is seen as a problem, and the government guidelines are the structure around it, stress can be better managed by leaders understanding how employees prefer to work under the new restrictions according to their individual problem-solving style. Use this knowledge to clarify agree guidelines and work expectations with individuals.

2. Recognise how your personality impacts teams

Whether we are leaders working as part of a valuable team, or we are in positions of management, we must understand that our individual problem-solving styles and preferences for structure impacts how our team’s function.

Leaders should look at the protocols and guidelines put in place to support lockdown regulations. Are they restricting an innovator or are they too general for an adaptor? You should then consider how clearly or deliberately they are articulated. Be transparent in your communications, recognise anxiety, and consider the different personalities in your team.

3. Consider personality against the virtual environment

Our ability to control our virtual environments in a way that feels more structured (adaptive) or more flexible (innovative) can positively impact our ability to engage and function.

It’s important to recognise that team members may or may not have optimal individual environments that impact energy and engagement. Meeting with one another virtually heightens this awareness when we also have to deal with indirect eye contact, scrutiny over one another’s ‘background’ image, and the lack of real human interaction. When we are stressed, we hold onto what we can control and this may result in some people backing further into an isolated corner and others coming off more forcefully than usual to compensate for that loss of environmental control.

When we are stressed, we hold onto what we can control and this may result in some people backing further into an isolated corner and others coming off more forcefully than usual.”

Providing enough structure for virtual interactions and meetings will appeal to the more adaptive members, and offering flexibility in where they call in from and how they share information will help support the more innovative.

4. Manage the style gap

How well leaders manage the problem-solving style gaps between themselves and others is critical. Leaders should model the behavior they want from their workforce teams – and discuss what they need to survive another lockdown. What kind of structure and guidance do people need, or not need? Is it helpful to talk through all the project details for the more adaptive members of the team, or is it more helpful to have loose guidelines to run with before reporting back later for those more innovative employees?

Adaptors and innovators feel stressed when working conditions don’t align with their preferences. When possible, prompt them to ask for what they need, work to understand their perspective, and encourage them that they can do it when the task calls for an unpreferred approach.

5. ‘Turn on’ coping behaviours

Coping behavior is something we can “turn on” to operate more adaptively or more innovatively than our preferred problem-solving style. We do this by being aware of what is required to solve the problem, and by listening to the team to understand if more coping is required.

Don’t be afraid to identify where there are issues and acknowledge people for doing their best; this will result in a greater willingness to give more as a team. If we help our teams work within their adaptive and innovative preferences, they will be able to cope better in times of stress and trust and rapport will improve. The payoff will be a stronger and more cohesive team emerging from the pandemic.

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Dr Megan Seibel

About Dr Megan Seibel

Dr. Megan Seibel is a KAI practitioner and associate sirector of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving at Virginia Tech.
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