Avoiding burnout during your COVID-19 response

Oct 16, 2020

Charlie discusses the effects of burnout on your staff and how to prevent it during your COVID-19 response.

One theme we are seeing during our debriefs of many organisations’ response to the pandemic is that members of the incident team are experiencing burnout or feeling very close to it. Many incidents that people have responded to in the past have lasted a few days and then it has been resolved and life returns to normal. Working long hours over a few days is sustainable but responding to COVID-19 has been going on for around seven months. As we came out of lockdown, restrictions were removed, and life seemed to be going back to normal and so incident teams could either stand down or meet less often. Now with infections increasing all around the UK and with new lockdowns being implemented in different areas, incident teams have to deal with a fast-moving situation and respond to changes in regulations and rules again. There appears to be no end in sight and this situation is likely to wax and wane over the next six months and beyond, until a vaccine becomes available.

With incident management teams continuing to manage their response to coronavirus, this bulletin will describe the actions that team members and leaders can take to prevent burnout and ensure that their response can be sustained for several months going forward. The following are a few ideas you may want to introduce to ensure an ongoing response:

  1. Recognise changes in your fellow team members’ behaviour and either talk to them about it or mention it to the incident team leader and get them to approach the member of staff, as this may be the start of burnout. Don’t, in a very British way, just ignore changes in behaviour as this will not get better without help.
  2. Consider having one or two members of the incident team trained in mental health aid, so they are able to spot issues before they become more serious.
  3. If people have been working excessive hours or for days on end without a break, ‘order’ them to go home and take a few days off. Ensure they are confident that their tasks are being taken care of whilst they are away, otherwise they will think that they are going to come back to even more work.
  4. Don’t let staff who are responding try and carry out a full-time day job as well as deal with the incident and carry out a whole load of tasks as part of their incident role. Either separate the roles and those working on the incident leave their day job to someone else or have a number of full-time staff whose only role is responding to the incident. This means senior managers can attend incident team meetings and give their expert advice and make decisions, but then allow professional incident management staff to implement them.
  5. Rotate staff throughout the incident team, perhaps making use of each role’s deputy. This gives people a break and is also an opportunity for the deputies to learn ‘on the job’ how to manage an incident.
  6. If you are starting to feel stressed and become irritable with those on the team or your colleagues, take a short timeout. Bad-tempered team members have a very corrosive impact on the team and can raise everyone’s stress levels.
  7. You have to look after yourself by exercising, eating healthy and avoiding excess alcohol. The team at BC Training do their daily mile every day to increase productivity and reduce stress. This takes less than 20 minutes, does not require a high level of fitness and does not require you to get changed into a gym kit. Consider getting your team to do this as part of your response regime. If you are very pressed for time you can continue your meeting during the daily mile!
  8. Leave time for family, spouses, partners and children. If they are happy then you will find it easier to deal with the stress of work.
  9. Ask for help and don’t suffer in silence, speak to someone if you feel that you are suffering from burnout.
  10. Whenever possible, stand down the team and manage the incident through ‘business as normal’.

Your organisation’s response to COVID-19 is going to continue for several months and with new regulations and rules, you will have to dynamically change your organisation’s response. Make sure that all those on the incident team are briefed on burnout, how to recognise it and what to do if themselves or a colleague think they are suffering from it.

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