All-staff PTO, no video Fridays, wellness checks: How team leaders are countering employee burnout

Tips from leaders at Google, Target and firms like Praytell, Hotwire and Allison+Partners on recognizing the toll COVID-19 is taking on staff.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Agency leaders are sounding the alarm on the stress and pressure their employees are under after months of being isolated at home, a race to finish client work for 2020 on a revenue high and no respite in sight from COVID-19. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my career. Folks who usually run through walls are hitting walls,” says Andy Pray, founder of Praytell Strategy. “Those walls are coming from fatigue, stress and build-up of having been in this mental and physical space for eight months.”

“People are feeling the pressure to give 100% when they don’t always feel 100%,” he adds. “They’re hitting walls at rates I’ve never seen before. That’s troubling because we’re not through the woods of this.”

Scott Allison, chairman and CEO of Allison+Partners, agrees.

“There is no sugar-coating it. It has taken a real toll on people,” he adds. “In the first few months of the pandemic, we could be like, ‘We’re all this together, no one was laid off at our agency and we’re all happy to have our jobs.’ But the pandemic went from a sprint to a marathon and it is hard to play that ‘grateful’ message for the long haul.” 

“People are really tired and getting burnt out,” says Allison. “We’ve done a fair amount to try and help people cope, but I don’t know if enough can ever be done to really conquer this.” 

No one is suggesting that PR practitioners are under the same stresses of healthcare workers or other essential personnel, but the pandemic has made an already-stressful occupation much more so. 

“People are trying to manage themselves, their physical and mental health with perhaps young kids still running around at home, elderly parents who need help and knowing a colleague or loved one has COVID-19, all the while trying to do great work,” says Dale Bornstein, CEO of Next Fifteen-owned agency M Booth. "It is certainly hard to try to balance for this long without folks feeling guilty, anxious, worried -- all things that contribute to stress." 

Here’s what agency and in-house leaders are doing to help their colleagues make it through the pandemic. 

PTO days

Employers have been encouraging their staff to make sure they take paid time off days. This sounds great in theory, but in practice it can have the opposite effect: putting more stress on employees. 

“Everyone else is still working, and so what happens is you come back to a mound full of email and Slack messages,” notes Tiffany Ankenman, head of people and culture at Hotwire. “People almost feel like it isn’t worth it.” 

Not to mention the fact that it's also a pain to manually deactivate message app notifications on each device. 

Hotwire says it has found a solution to these problems, with the entire staff sharing a PTO day once a month from May through July and again since October. It even tries to coordinate with clients to do the same thing. 

“We’ve heard from staff how much they like this because they were able to shut off without worrying about what they were going to come back to,” says Ankenman. “We’ve also had a great response from clients, including from those who weren’t doing a PTO day with us.” 

Google has implemented PTO days for its workforce after noticing that employes were taking fewer days off than before the pandemic. Corey duBrowa, the technology giant’s VP of global communications and public affairs, says this gives employees a chance “to reset and focus on themselves and their families.” 

Another measure: ensure teams have the bandwidth to properly cover for a staffer on a day off. 

“If you let someone take a day off, but you don’t cover them, then they come back to two times the work,” says Pray. “You need to have built the architecture to really cover for people and an environment built on trust, so people can raise their hands and know with confidence that if they say they don’t have it today, there won’t be repercussion and retaliation.” 

A number of agencies are planning to shut down operations, with the exception of client emergencies, for the last two weeks of the year. Some, like Praytell, are doing so for the first time

Zoom fatigue

Technologies such as Zoom and the Hangouts and Teams platforms from Google and Microsoft, respectively, were a godsend this spring as employees adjusted to working from home. Yet as the pandemic wore on, they’ve also resulted in fallout. 

“We’re finding that the causes and the way we are experiencing burnout looks a little different now,” says Grace Leong, CEO of Hunter. “In the before-pandemic days, even if you had a packed calendar of meetings, you often moved from room to room and alternated between in-person, phone and the occasional video chat.” 

“I think we underestimated the benefits of those transitions and that variety,” she adds. “Now it feels like all Zoom, all the time.”  

While it can be great to see colleagues face-to-face, Zoom fatigue is real, leaving staffers -- who are also using the platform for parent-teacher interviews and doctor appointments -- bleary-eyed, exhausted and burned out. 

Hunter counters Zoom fatigue with virtual fitness classes led by personal trainers, dancers and yogis. Bornstein has a standing “walk and talk” weekdays at 8:30 a.m, when any M Booth staffer can join her on a morning catch-up while she jogs on her treadmill. One caveat: they need to be getting their pulse up, too, whether on a walk outside or on their own exercise equipment. 

“We talk on phone – on purpose,” adds Bornstein. “It is about, ‘Call me, get moving and start our mornings together!’” 

Another agency has cut out video calls altogether one day a week. 

“We started no-video Fridays,” says Beth Monaghan, CEO and cofounder of Inkhouse. 

Zoom happy hours were initially popular with Inkhouse staff in the months right after the pandemic, but participation dropped. 

“People started to be like, ‘I don’t want to go on yet another video call,’” she says. “We space them out now. We’ve also made it about a specific activity, like a trivia contest.”

DuBrowa went a step further with his team and designated “two meeting-free weeks (of the meetings his team controls) this year,” which he says gives team members “more time to think, work on special projects and plan for the future.”

“Not only does this create breathing room for folks, but it helps alleviate video-conferencing fatigue,” he adds, noting that Google will also do this at the company level at the end of the year. 

Hotwire has asked for the cooperation of clients in reducing the length of Zoom meetings, by scheduling one-hour calls for 45 minutes and half-hour meetings for 20 minutes -- and trying their best to stick to that. 

A letter from Hotwire global CEO Barbara Bates explains: “In a year of constant change, relentless urgency and unique pressures, we all need to make sure that our teams are protected from stress and fatigue. We all know that teams that feel healthy deliver amazing work, and that’s what we all care about.” 

Mental-health initiatives

Allison is reimbursing 50% of any wellness literature purchased by employees until 2021. It also produces a monthly “wellness” letter that directs staff to resources, from apps to books, about mental health. 

While not many have taken advantage of the reimbursement offer, Allison says gestures like this go a long way to letting people know “we understand this is a tough time.” 

Target turned over part of its internal daily newsletter, TGT Briefly, to a month-long content series focused on mental health, including tips for avoiding burnout. 

“We also use this channel to remind team members about mental-health resources that we’ve made available over the last several months, like free counseling services and a full year of access to apps like Daylight and Sleepio,” says Katie Boylan, the retailer’s SVP and chief communications officer. “Also, Target has rolled out training for team members focused on building resiliency and avoiding burnout and is leveraging leadership forums to create an ongoing dialogue on these topics. 

Google is recognizing the toll that stresses at home can have on employees. IIn July, it introduced an initiative to help those “struggling with family obligations,” like caring for kids at home or elderly parents, with 17 weeks of paid leave. 

“We have been actively encouraging people on our team to take advantage, says duBrowa. 

Not all things that used to be done in-person in the office have to be moved to video. Inkhouse used to surprise employees who were getting a promotion by having them come into an office, where their coworkers would be waiting to sing their praises. Now it’s added a pandemic twist. 

“We’ve decided we should keep doing that. Now a caravan of people in masks and keeping socially distanced drive to their house, where we ring the doorbell and surprise them with the promotion,” says Monaghan. “People love it and feel so special. It has been a real morale boost.” 

Leadership check-ins

Leaders can’t rely on every employee to put their hand up if they’re at their wits' end. Many people feel a mental health struggle is a sign of weakness and, while they may have empathy for others, they might not for themselves. 

Carnival Cruise Line had furloughs and cuts in its comms department, including to discretionary spending. Chief communications officer Chris Chiames can’t send everyone a cocktail party pack for a Zoom happy hour, but he has been hosting impromptu Teams calls without an agenda. 

“At first, I think the team found it a little unnerving. We’re used to thinking a last-minute, unplanned meeting called for in 30 minutes means bad news,” he says. “But I think they’re getting used to getting on the video chat and hearing me say, ‘I don’t have anything special.  Just wanted to check in to see how you’re doing and let you ask me what’s on your mind.’ 

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of accessibility, transparency and information as stress relievers,” says Chiames. 

“At a macro level, this whole year has been an exercise in reading people to make sure they’re OK, giving them space to pull back when they need it – even if they don’t ask for it,” says Anne Marie Squeo, chief communications and brand officer at Xerox. “We’ve all had so much to juggle, and no one wants to seem like they can’t handle the pressure.”

“Staying attuned to what’s happening on our teams lets us get ahead of issues before they start impacting the work,” she adds. 

Squeo advises looking for changes in “mood, tone and attentiveness, and actually really caring what might be behind it.” 

“One of my directs was quieter than usual during a meeting. Afterwards, I sent him a text to ask if everything was ok. Turned out, he was stressing on a few things and needed an afternoon,” Squeo says. “As leaders, especially in communications, we need to read people to see what they’re saying, even when they’re not talking."

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